Money for Nothing and Design for Free

The free pitch – a way of showcasing your creativity or the degradation of an industry? Many advertising agencies will tell you that a free pitch is a way to impress the potential client with what can be achieved. These agencies often throw a great deal of resources; both time and money, into a pitch just to get chosen for the next stage. However, nothing is free. Costs are recovered by billing extra margin into the project once won or building contingencies into standard rates which apply to all clients.

Creativity can be showcased without having to compromise by providing free design work. After all, isn’t it better to demonstrate success from actual portfolios; get a good understanding of the client, the business issues and the specifications required for the new project? According to Jack Magree, Cobalt’s co-founder, “a good designer should add value to the product development process by understanding and then advising the client on the best solution, something that is not practical with a free pitch”.

A client selecting a designer based on a free pitch is misguided as the choice is often based on the visual aspects of how a product may look, not on product development and engineering for the best outcome. Without the normal designer/client interaction, the design solutions are likely to be flawed and lack innovation as they are based on short cuts and guess work. This is not only frustrating for both parties, but could damage relationships with the client, undermining design work prospects with them in the future. It also degrades the industry as it fuels the belief that design work is cheap, fast and easy.

Good design is not just about the way something looks. It is also about the feel, usability and ease of interface with the end user. Basing a decision purely on the way something looks also ignores the additional benefits that good design can bring, such as commercial savings from better use of materials or technology and enhanced marketing value that designers often deliver.

Research undertaken in the UK which surveyed over 200 design agencies concluded that over 25% of projects or tenders pitched for are not awarded. The reasons were generally a change of marketing strategy, reduced budgets, change of mind and no chemistry established with design agencies. If a client was paying for such work, it is more likely to be a strong commitment to the design process.

Another risk to emerge from providing free pitches has been potential legal implications. Jeffrey Zeldman in “Don’t design on spec” described a scenario in the US where a company was being sued for using inspiration from an unsuccessful agency’s design pitch.
The final word: The Design Institute of Australia, like most professional design bodies globally, resolutely opposes free pitching. And so does Cobalt.


1. Zeldman, J “Don’t design on spec”, The Daily Report, 26 January 2004