Ah, the fabled “free pitch”, where two or more designers or agencies are asked to competitively present their ideas in response to a pitch brief to try to win over a client.

There’s a good chance you have or will be involved in a free pitch at some point in your design career. While free pitching may seem like a given – or somehow a part of our industry’s DNA – I’m going to outline why such thinking is bad for everyone: the designer, the client and our industry as a whole.

Why it’s bad for you

As creatives, we thrive on the challenge of problem solving – it’s at the heart of everything we do. In the case of pitching for free, this raises two problems for us.

Firstly, we are presenting ideas that we hope will win over the client, but won’t necessarily solve the actual problem that needs answering. The pitching process very rarely, if at all, gives you the kind of client consultation required to gain the insight necessary to carry out a robust design process. Pitching is less about rationale, research and creativity and more about blind intuition and the art of ‘guessing’ what will impress the client. By its nature, it’s a very superficial exercise that produces very shallow results.

Secondly, we are being asked do it for free. Think about that for a minute. For the chance to be selected, you are asked to come up with great creative ideas – your primary product – for no pay, so a client can effectively taste a few samples and see what they like best. In doing so, we massively undersell what it is we do, devaluing the real cost of good design.

Why it’s bad for the client

Designers often talk about the importance of collaborating with clients, forming partnerships, and even educating them about the power and value of design. The moment you agree to pitch for free, you are failing those aspirations and, in doing so, failing the client. Yes, the client thinks creating a free competition is a way to solve their problem, but clearly they have failed to realise the result will probably be bad work. Clients in this scenario, in all likelihood, do not understand the potential consequences or that their business’ reputation will suffer should the process result in poor work. By engaging in the free pitch, you are failing the client at the first step.

Why it’s bad for our entire industry

As designers, we strive to raise the bar for our industry, not only through the quality of our work, but through our practices and professionalism at all levels of the client-supplier relationship. We know there is a great deal more to design than the final outcome. So the best way to protect our industry is to always defend those practices and educate our clients in how to best engage with designers. By taking on free pitch work we not only devalue our own services but those of our shared industry. If we show we are prepared to give away our ideas for free, what else do we have? By pitching for free, we cheapen our craft and damage our industry for every designer.

Everyone’s a loser, baby

When clients approach us with a problem that requires a design solution, we need to be strong enough to show them the best way forward. It’s too easy to suggest that asking us to pitch for free is the fault of bad clients. In reality, it’s our responsibility to say “no” and explain why. Together we can help clients understand there are no winners in a free pitch.

For the record, I have been involved in free pitches while employed as an Art Director at several agencies, but my consultancy Function/Form does not pitch for free.


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