Why free pitching is a lose/lose situation for both creatives and their clients

If you’re a designer or work in the creative industry you have no doubt heard of the “free pitch”. This is where a potential client asks 2 or more designers or agencies to competitively pitch their creative ideas against one another in response to a pitch brief for no or very little financial compensation in order to win over a client and then hopefully win the project. Ah yes that ol’ chestnut, where it’s a given that if you’re a creative then providing your ideas and IP for free in the hope of winning the job and then eventually getting paid is just the way it is.

I’m not sure how this mentality came about, I know its rife in other creative industries like acting, journalism and music but it’s just so harmful and not to mention a very poor means of the client actually receiving any sort of strategic and relevant design or service. So why is it so bad?

Let’s start with why this is a losing situation for the designer and creative agency. Any designer worth their salt knows that good design is based on taking a creative brief and problem solving the issues the brief raises.

Problem solving is central to all good design, it’s what makes designers tick and it’s the difference between strategic, relevant design and superficial pretty pictures on a page.

When a designer is asked to pitch for free its grossly undervalues what we do. To come up with strong creative ideas and the strategy and IP behind those ideas (the primary product for a designer) for free is like asking a chef to cook your dinner in his restaurant but you will only pay for it if you deem it better than his competitor. No one would expect this from a professional chef so why a professional designer? It’s obvious that the designer loses out here, even if they happen to win the project they have massively undersold themselves and their ideas and have set up a precedent on their intrinsic value.

What’s less obvious is how this is a bad situation for the client who is essentially getting a professional service and not having to pay for it. Firstly, all good design comes from a partnership between designer and client, where communication, collaboration and research to create a thorough brief is mandatory before a designer even turns on their Mac and starts the concept process. It’s only through this exchange between client and designer that problem solving, insight and strategy in design can occur. With the free pitch this essential step is rarely executed properly and is often completely missed. Pitching is often less about strategy and rationale and more about guessing what the client is going to like subjectively so you can hopefully win them over. By its nature, free pitching is a very superficial exercise with the designs produced equally superficial. In the end the client’s design problems and challenges haven’t been addressed properly and therefore remains unsolved, and as a creative you have failed your client at the very first step.

Most clients understand that good design is a powerful tool for their businesses but often they need the collaboration and direction from a creative agency to understand how to achieve and maximise the power and value of good design.

As a designer the first step is to say no to free pitching and to educate your client on the correct process that needs to occur for best results. Yes this is risky given that if the other agency has no issue with free pitching your “hats not even in the ring” when it comes to working with this client (unless of course your client has the good sense to take on board your professional advice and sees the value in following correct process).

In the end it’s a lose/lose situation when it comes to free pitching and it damages the design industry in a way that lowers the bar on both the quality of design and the quality of relationship between designer and client. Even though it’s risky and can mean losing potential design projects it’s the responsibility of all creatives to say no to giving away their ideas for free and to explain why. I hope this article can help with this explanation and that clients allow their design team to work collaboratively with them for best results.

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