Have you ever asked designers/agencies to pitch creative work for a job? Or as a designer, have you been on the receiving end of such a request?

Sadly I’m afraid the answer for many people in the industry will be yes. There is an impression that putting a job out to pitch is the best way to find the best match for your creative requirement. ‘Why give the job to one person who might not be a good fit when I could essentially ask multiple providers to go out of their way to show me why I should pick them?

Stopping just short of crowdsourcing, pitches offer the next worst approach to hiring a creative service provider.

Stopping just short of crowdsourcing, pitches offer the next worst approach to hiring a creative service provider. Asking someone to work speculatively wouldn’t happen in many other industries (try asking a group of plumbers or builders to do some work and you’ll pay the one you prefer at the end…), why is it so prevalent in ours?

As a general rule I’m very reluctant to enter pitch situations at all. I realise that there will be times I need to do it – sometimes the risk might seem worth it but at a basic level I disagree with the principle of offering my services without guarantee of payment.

However there’s a deeper reason for why I fundamentally disagree with pitches and it’s all to do with the perception of design and its value to the client.

A recent example

This Summer I had an opportunity to create a corporate identity, logo and website for an organisation who were keen to refresh their look and become more professional in the way they communicated their message. I was provided with a fairly detailed brief and was asked to provide a quote for the work required. I didn’t skimp on costs, quoting what I felt the job was worth, and was pleased when I was told I had got through to the next stage – creative.

Myself and another company had both been put forward and the committee panel wanted to see design solutions from both parties to decide who to go with. My heart sank but I reluctantly agreed, feeling confident I could provide something strong and win what could be a very good job.

I struggled, questioning my understanding of the brief and trying to second guess what the client wanted to see.

You see, I’m not ashamed to admit my tried and tested design process rarely results in a perfect hit first time.

My best work almost always comes after a client has seen the initial proposals and we are able to communicate and work to refine ideas over another one or two (even more) stages of design.

That is how I believe it should be done. That’s when a designer earns their corn – by involving a client in the journey, helping them own the solution and facilitating that process and relationship – using their experience and skill to guide them along with professional integrity to find the best possible idea and execution.

But no. Here I knew I needed to hit the nail on the head first time or not at all. A group of people were due to sit down with print outs of my three designs along with three from my competitor (unmarked and anonymous) and judged on face value. Why would they pick an option which wasn’t yet complete or had potential for development? Of course they wouldn’t. They would pick the option that struck them first and say – ‘there it is, that’s the one, hire that one’.

And of course, that meant doing a full, complete logo design project speculatively and with no opportunity for discussion – knowing there was a 50% chance I wouldn’t be paid and my work wouldn’t be used anyway.

The results

I expect you can guess by now that I didn’t win the pitch. My three designs came 2nd, 3rd and 4th out of six and so the job went to the other company. Of course I was disappointed but this was compounded when I saw the chosen design more recently.

I’ll admit I have seen worse but without wanting to sound bitter or overly critical, the design lacked real quality or concept. I won’t go into too much detail here – being unkind or undermining the work of other designers isn’t the point of this article.

But I knew the client would have been rewarded with a much more valuable brand asset had they invested in the relationship with a selected, high quality designer, briefed them individually, met up to discuss the expectations and committed to the process.

I was left cursing myself for not including an option in that style which might at least have seen me chosen to take the job forward and perhaps have chance to give better direction to the project.

But what was the alternative? In trying to appeal to what I thought the client thought they wanted there was always going to be an element of guesswork involved and the opportunity to expand our thoughts and work on finding a solution in partnership wasn’t there – a major flaw in the theory of pitching.

I could have offered a more generic set of options and dumbed down my initial thought process but is that really offering value?

My disappointment was less for my own loss, more for what design has become to many – a commodity with little true value.


So I finish with a heartfelt plea. If you are looking to hire a creative service provider (design, copywriting, web development amongst others) please, please, please don’t devalue the service by asking people to work speculatively. Look a bit deeper:

Make sure you select someone with a solid process who can guide you through the project, make you a central part of it, and has the ability to craft something excellent that you will be proud to own at the end of it.

Have you encountered pitching in a similar or contrasting way? Let me know!

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