Sales processes like client pitching are evolving   (Photo credit: The_Warfield)

Here’s a really interesting question from a friend of mine. His name is Joel Hughes and he is an extremely clever web type who runs JoJet Internet Strategy – they can help you and your company thrive online. Me and Joel spoke the other day about a relatively new issue for me, that of the so-called free pitch.

Lots of businesses pitch their work, and even creative work for free these days, and businesses like Joel’s can feel pressure to do the same. When the competition are doing it, sometimes it can make you feel like you have to do it, but Joel has an interesting take on it. Here is his question:

A big issue with pitching for web work is that some suppliers will throw in free concepts of how the website could look. I don’t/can’t.

One issue here is that you’re giving design work away for free (you’ll probably hit that one out of the park 😉 But a bigger issue for me is that design work done too early misdirects the whole process and can lead the client into deadly blind alleys; as soon as you start talking about colours then all reason goes out the window.

 I’m not going to go down this “free pitching” route so, I suppose, the onus is on me to make things easier for the client and to get the value/process across better?

Clearly, Joel has a good grasp on the topic anyway, and he’s most likely come up with the best answer himself. Running your own successful business for more than 10 years does give you a certain commercial ability! But here are my initial thoughts.

Stand by for a complicated Brain Dump!

By way of comparison,  media owners always provide free pitches, as do most media agencies that I’m aware of, even when the creative work is charged for once the pitch is accepted. This results in ‘rough draft’ type radio ads and visuals for press, story boards for TV etc.

This complicates the issue for businesses like Joel’s who have always charged to pitch, in that, as more ‘new to the scene’ clients look to use what were previously specialist or technical services, they bring ‘normal’ pressures to bear. Normal in terms of what most other businesses deal with that is.

In other words, as more and more ‘traditional’ businesses require web services they will bring traditional negotiation techniques and expectations to the table.

In my experience, paid for pitches are usually technical or industrial, institutional or really top end (high value) where so much work has to go into the pitch there would not be a business case to do it for free. It would literally cost too much to produce pitch work. (TV pilot for instance)

 Issues at play

Competitive and disruptive forces drive prices down which must therefore drive costs down (or all is lost!) This might well result in the requirement for a cheaper ‘pitch’ vehicle that can be rolled out for free. If clients expectations are increasingly that this work will be done for free, you’ll quickly find yourself in a vicious circle! This all ultimately changes the way people do business.

Charging for work where others don’t or in some other way trying to leverage a premium versus the market will normally place you in the top end. The question you have to ask  your work sufficiently top end to justify this premium?

Of course charging to pitch immediately weeds out those clients that you might otherwise consider time wasters. It can be a valuable segmentation tool. However, be careful here. If everyone else is doing it for free, its easy to become a proud pauper.

I really feel for designers in terms of giving away the design work. It seems to be the thing where you are providing the most value, yet clients typically expect it for free! However, it’s always been extremely difficult to ‘price’ creative value. One mans masterpiece is another’s scribble.

And that’s part of the issue. Basically it comes down to whether your clients think your work is good enough to justify paying a premium. Apple is a great example. People pay way more that the going rate for those products because of the power of the brand. The value of the design if you like.

Modern Sales Pitch

Modern Sales Pitch (Photo credit: michael_reuter)

‘When you start talking about colours, all reason goes out the window’

From the clients perspective, the problems the designer faces in bringing the product to market are your problems not theirs. These problems tend to be factored in by the vendor these days, not offset back to the client. So it’s extremely difficult to argue the creative processes angle.

Simply put: Is everyone else doing it? Some of them doing it? None of them doing it? Consequently…

Will your customers continue to pay you to pitch to them? If not and if you are unwilling or unable to change your approach – you will need to come up with a way of demonstrating why paying you to pitch to them increases value for them versus the value the market provides for free.

Typically this is either because your product is so much better, or your brand has that much ‘power’ customers are willing to pay up front, or maybe you will be able to demonstrate that those competitors that aren’t charging to pitch are ‘hiding’ that cost somewhere else in the process.

On your side is the universal law of ‘price and differentiation’. People believe stuff is good OR cheap. Though the internet continues to blur lines in this regard, it’s still pretty much the case that people believe you get what you pay for. And asking people to pay for a pitch is a good way to differentiate you from the crowd I think.

Just be prepared to be able to back this up with deliverable and high value solutions!

The very talented Joel Hughes

The very talented Joel Hughes

What do you think? Joel has come up with an interesting question here, and also clarifies that generally he works with businesses that know and value him. This means there is less pressure to pitch for free. But given there are two types of business – New business and repeat business, he will certainly face this dilemma at some point.

What have you found to be the answer? Or what do you think about the issues this throws up? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you, or email me directly on [email protected]

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8 replies
  1. Joel_Hughes
    Joel_Hughes says:

    Hi Tony, Many thanks for your thoughts here. Obviously we’ve spoken about this offline and there were a few other points.

    I don’t charge to pitch. The issue is more about throwing in design concepts for free. Very rarely would I see a proposal from a potential client who expects design concepts as part of the pitch; however this doesn’t stop other companies doing it (which is fair enough, each to his own). I tend to get work through recommendation so I’m less bothered about how far I need to let the client go on a first date! People who want to work with me, want to work with me. They know I have a premium service.

    Free pitching is not a major issue for me but there is a lot of concern in the creative industry in general.

    I just take every situation as a learning example and I’ll do what I can to improve my pitches; onwards & upwards! I’ve already thought of a couple of creative approaches to helping ensure my proposal stands out (and, again, this would mainly be for the non-common situations were the client doesn’t know me already).

    “So it’s extremely difficult to argue the creative processes angle.”; process is key to what I do though Tony. There is no magic wand to web design, quality results demand hard graft on both sides; client & vendor. Some clients don’t want to do any work – these are not my target audience. Clients buy into me & my process.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this & a happy new year to you


    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Thanks Joel, very useful additional insight there. Sorry if I have misrepresented you a little, no offence intended 🙂
      Your last line there sums it all up beautifully I think. You personally are able to leverage your premium because ‘clients buy into me and my processes’ and thats really at the heart of these issues!
      Thanks for the thought provoking question, and happy new year to you too!

  2. Mike Bersin
    Mike Bersin says:

    Great thinking! I have a friend, actually the daughter of a freind who runs a very successful P{R company. Right from when they started 8 years ago, they never pitched for work free. If a company wanted a presentation from them they had to pay £5k upfront for it. How’s that for cool? And how’s that for making the point they’re worth it?

  3. philippa
    philippa says:

    Very interesting subject. When I ran my comms training co in London, Voiceworks, we always pitched for free. It was a norm then. We followed a guideline of describing fully WHAT (content) we would do, but not HOW (method) we would do it. It was the HOW that made us more effective and needed protecting from competition or copying …we would discuss that once we’d got the gig…

    Definitely think if you’re pitching any sort of service there is a barrier where ideas and detail are of such value they can be referred to as ‘behind my paywall, sorry’!

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Hey Pippa! The idea of a pay wall is interesting isn’t it? Especially if the customer doesn’t have the same idea of your value as you do!

      Here is an sort of analogy from radio land. There is a product we sell that is very creative and really engages the audience – we call it ‘sponsorship and promotions’ (or S+P)

      The normal pricing system is based on the number is spots a client purchases – similar in that regard to TV, but as these S+P ideas seem more effective, more creative and certainly more attractive to the client, the radio station is able to leverage a price premium – the clients are typically willing to pay more.

      Value in this sense, as is the case with Joel’s customers, is in the eye of the beholder

  4. brandnatter
    brandnatter says:

    Hi Tony,

    Great piece here, it’s good to read a rational point of view of the subject from someone outside of the design industry – it’s been a big issue in the design industry for years and seems to never end!

    Like Joel, I don’t charge to pitch but I also don’t provide free design concepts upfront – mainly for the following reasons:
    1) As a SME I don’t have the time and/or resources to for myself or pay freelance associates to work on speculative projects.
    2) It devalues the design process.
    3) It misdirects the client into thinking about pictures, colours etc. without allowing the designer to follow a process that allows them to throughly understand their business, the problem that will lead to the most relevant solution – in effect it’s just a glorified beauty parade.

    When potential projects require a pitch my response is usually in the form of a credentials document that outlines clearly how I do things (showing the process) along with case studies aligned to process and results. The purpose of which is to show that I’m not ‘just pulling ideas out of my arse’ but that there is a tried, tested and result-based design process at the heart of everything I do. Where allowed I’ll also meet the client as part of the pitching process to take them through the proposal, process, case studies and also chat about my plans for the project.

    Obviously I win-some and lose-some – but every situation is treated as a learning example and any opportunity to improve my pitches is gladly taken.

    I don’t think the blame can be left solely at the door of those that commission work. I think it’s up to the designer to educate the client as to whether they free-pitch or not (there’s always going to be a business with the resources or a hungry young designer happy to do it). But as I said I don’t think a free-concept does a project any favours in designing a relevant solution focused to the needs and requirements of the brief.

    I did have a blog-post in mind for this, so your article has nudged me to do it. I’ve been thinking for sometime to write a guide for free-pitching for designers and buyers. I should probably start writing it!


    PS: A couple years ago I undertook some business consulting from Blair Enns who created the Win Without Pitching business development process: I found his materials and insights very useful and helped me shape my pitch process.

    • Tony Dowling
      Tony Dowling says:

      Wow! Great comment, thanks Russ!

      Couple of points I really like there, the credentials document is a good idea, and the fact that you are into educating the client to ‘buy’. Its an essential part of the purchase process in this sense.

      It also feeds into the the one concern I’d have with both your and Joel’s perspectives here. Its really easy to think the client doesn’t know what is right for them, not belong as ‘clever’ or creative as the designer. You both use language like ‘misdirecting the client into thinking about pictures’ or ‘as soon as you start talking about colours, all reason goes out the window’ I know what you are getting at, after all, there is a strong element of creativity about what I do, but its really easy to dismiss clients concerns and interests as not being relevant.

      As you say, its about teaching them how to appreciate your approach, as well as helping them understand why you might offer the most value, despite the away you present it.

      It might not be their fault if that process goes awry!

      Thanks for joining in, I’m learning loads!

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