Free pitching – is it cheap or expensive?

Alan Robertson, CEO of Air, shares his views on free pitching and whether it is good or bad path to take.

The debate surrounding the insidious ’free pitch’ continues in much the same vein as it did when I started in the design consultancy industry some 20 years ago. I rather suspect that in another twenty years we’ll still be talking about it.

It may be a slightly contrary view but I think ‘the free pitch’ it has more to do with market economics than anything else. My experience has shown me that there appears to be more designers than projects. Thus we have an oversupply and how clients make selection decision has more to do with the designers than perhaps they think.

A huge generalisation I know, but if we were to place designers into the two groups, generalists and specialists, it would highlight an important issue. By this I mean specialism by client industry sectors, rather than design disciplines. I believe that this generalism is the root of the problem. Experienced design buyers seek out specialists, the less experienced struggle with this.

In a market where there is oversupply and deep commonality between products or offers, the customer will have the option to try before they buy. Consider cars. If you were to buy a new car and you were offered 5 almost identical models from 5 different manufacturers. How would you decide what to buy? They all look the same, most have 4 wheels, they all do the A to B bit well and have similar costs and specifications. You’d almost certainly want to test drive them – which means the manufacturer would need to build them first.

So my view is that generalist design consultants, with little to differentiate themselves from others, operate in a commodity market where a customer can only differentiate by test driving the product – so this means asking for design first and then making a selection on who to work with based on this. Websites like Crowdspring and 99design are widely loathed by the design conginscenti, but they are simply a function of a oversupplied market. Essentially, a ‘try before you buy’ approach.

Clients have less and less time and need to make faster decisions. They simply don’t have enough time to look into your soul and discover your genius. What they need is a consultant who can quickly demonstrate outstanding creative standards and show a deep level of expertise in the client business. When they find this partner they tend to really value them. Sometimes the conversation swings away from pitching over to exclusivity agreements.

So, are you a generalist? If so, it’s bad news I’m afraid. Free pitching will remain in your world; supply, demand and market economics aren’t going away. Importantly, free pitching, whilst giving the illusion of being a cheap smart way to buy design, does not produce great design work. That’s is a hard fact, and it also a fact that in the long run, bad design work is expensive.

My belief is that great design comes from a deep immersion and specialisation in a subject. A great designer balances this with a keen world view which enables him to contextualise his work. This takes dedication and considerable practice before both the skill levels and knowledge base are strong enough. It also requires a visionary client to recognise this, one who trusts the design process and his design team.

But, the eventual result can be really great design work, not just different but genuinely better. From a client business perspective it is this great design work that is cheap and that’s another hard fact.