Design Review

By The Drum, Administrator

July 29, 2005 | 12 min read

Free pitching

Ah, that old chestnut. The origin of the phrase ‘old chestnut’ comes from a play called The Broken Sword that was first performed at Covent Garden in 1816. It relates to a gag one of the characters repeats over and over again with the punch line being ‘a chestnut’. Hence the association with a tired joke, or routine, that fails to arouse much mirth – which, uncannily enough, is very apt for free pitching.

So often the bane of agencies from all spectrums of the marketing services milieu, the frustration levels felt at free pitching tend to teeter their way into Defcon 1 among the design fraternity. The nature of design/client relationships is usually more ad hoc than it is with regard to other marketing disciplines, meaning agencies often end up working on standalone projects rather than long-term accounts. In many cases this manifests itself in a pitch intensive environment, leading to strain, pressure, underperformance and, when clients insist on free pitching, downright anger.

Here senior designers and agency bosses discuss the essential cons at the heart of the process. Oh, and the occasional pros too.

Why is free pitching detrimental to agencies?

“It has the potential to devalue creative design work and ultimately the design industry as a whole.

“Most people, clients and potential clients included, tend to place more value on something they’ve paid for. This means that ‘free’ can equate to ‘disposable’ in many people’s opinions – undervaluing designer’s time, skills and effort.

Also, ‘free’ is something of a misnomer: staff often work unpaid to get the pitch work done out of hours, the agency absorbs the cost which can, in extremis, create financial instability or, in many cases, the cost is simply passed on to the client through increased ultimate fees. That’s hardly free.”

Paul Adams, Origin

In what ways can it be detrimental to the clients

who are looking to commission an agency?

“The clients are also missing out here. Yes, they do seem to have the best deal, however, smaller, very good agencies may turn the pitch down and so larger, not necessarily better, firms may be the only real option for the client.

“A client/agency relationship will also uncover new avenues that a pitch could never achieve, as very little communication can be entered into at this stage. Finally, a winning pitch or idea will not necessarily be the best way forward for the client. In fact, history tells us the winning piece is not usually rolled out for use.”

Bill Green, Funnel

Can it work positively for agencies and clients?

“A pitch does decide some things, however. Do we like each other, has the agency been able to grasp the brief, has the agency raised some searching questions or have they provided the bare minimum.

“As for the agency, well, yes it can be positive... if they win.”

Bill Green, Funnel

“Not initially, people have to be accountable for their actions.

“There was a time, as legend has it, when junior marketeers were instructed to put a brief out to a string of agencies, asking them to free pitch for a fictitious job. This was all in the aid of giving that junior invaluable experience.

“A fee of even £1,000 makes for accountability and makes the likes of us feel like we’re not whoring ourselves more than we have to.

“If you win the job, of course it’s positive, however, you’ll always be weary of the client. It’s vital that there is mutual trust and respect to enable the design process to work.”

Spencer Buck, Taxi Studio

What is the alternative to free pitching

and how can it be imposed?

“The only alternative to free pitching is paid pitching. This will never be totally enforceable as there will always be a desperate agency willing to put in the hours, for free, for the potential of some work.”

Spencer Buck, Taxi Studio

Any other comments?

“Ideas are what we trade in and are virtual in their nature. In effect a free pitch is a presentation of free ideas which only one agency will end up benefiting from. In the recent example of RTE Eire, didn’t they start the ball rolling with a 21-way pitch? Cake and eat it.”

Bill Green, Funnel

“Taxi Studio do not free pitch creative ideas, we refuse to do it. It’s hard sometimes, especially if times are tough, but you need to stand by your principles. The only way clients will get the message is if we all sing from the same song sheet.”

Spencer Buck, Taxi Studio

Blurring the disciplines

Look at how some design agencies, or agencies traditionally regarded as designers, market themselves these days. A good proportion of the time you’ll find that they’ve metamorphosed over the past couple of years into ‘creative agencies’ or ‘creative and branding consultancies’ or ‘ideas champions 4U’.

Okay, maybe the last one’s a little farfetched, but there’s definitely been an evolution, as design teams recognise that their core skills can be brandished beyond the realms of their traditional hunting grounds.

In particular, the advertising pastures have proved to be munificent – providing tasty opportunities that the teams appear to stalk down with ever-increasing success. We thought it was time to ask why.

What qualifies design agencies to do this?

“Fucking great ideas.”

Martin Carr, True North

“Quite simply, thinking. I’m of the opinion that if a design company possesses the level of brand thinking required to take a brand into advertising then they should do it. At Thompson, we find it comes naturally to our designers to expand their thinking into other disciplines.”

Phil Dean, Thompson

What advantages do design agencies have

over advertising firms when it comes to

finding ‘the big idea’?

“I’ve written about this before. Maybe it’s because designers preside over the gestation and birth of brands and advertising creatives don’t. In that respect they’re in at the coalface straightaway and because of that enhanced level of understanding there’s often a more intuitive empathy with how to put brand and consumer together in a compelling way.”

Martin Carr, True North

“Looking at recent awards ceremonies the freshness and originality that was once so prevalent has ebbed away and, in many cases, the designers are filling the gaps.

“There’s been a gradual move from design and advertising to design-led advertising, and I think this makes for very interesting times.

“Also, it should be recognised that design agencies are usually smaller and therefore, although they don’t have all the resources and planning elements, they’re far less inclined to be weighed down by tiers of management and bureaucracy, leaving them freer to respond quickly and more innovatively.”

Scott McCubbin, Glorious Creative

Can advertising agencies produce good design work?

“They will say they can, but by and large I think no. There are exceptions, but it’s harder for ad agencies to produce good design because their focus is in a different area. I’ve seen many agencies try, but traditional agencies tend not to employ really good designers. Although they have plenty of ‘creatives’ they lack the insight a designer can bring to the brief.”

Phil Dean, Thompson

“Don’t ask me, ask CBJWT, BDH, McCanns et al, but don’t necessarily believe what they tell you. Some are better than others. Maybe its because advertising traditionalists haven’t seen the benefit, or profit, in great design.”

Martin Carr, True North

Do you think clients are concerned about disciplines, or are they increasingly just looking for a one-stop creative shop?

“The majority of clients will still divide the work between above- and below-the-line, but the more progressive clients are less concerned about this split. They focus on the problem they face and work with the company they believe will help them resolve the problem, and not worry about whether they are an ad agency or design company.”

Phil Dean, Thompson


Always a topic that ignites a fiery debate, recruitment is an area that’s left numerous design agencies, and their clients, with burnt fingers.

As the old adage goes a company is only ever as good as its employees, so now, with competition is fierce as it’s ever been, it’s absolutely essential that agencies get the right staff to secure contracts, reputations and their financial futures. It’s clear from the following comments that there’s no real consensus on the state of play within the industry at the moment. And, on some issues, the quality of students in particular, there’s downright disagreement.

What recruitment issues are facing

the design industry today?

“There are too many students being churned out. If I saw every student that e-mailed or wrote to me I wouldn’t get my job done. Also, the quality of work, the general level of education/common sense/intelligence and, in particular, enthusiasm to do the work is disappointing to say the least. There is definitely a skill shortage, but not a graduate shortage.”

Alan Herron, The Chase

“Generally, one of the issues we have to face is managing an increased number of requests for extended maternity and paternity leave and flexible working from existing staff. To retain our best people we have needed to introduce job-sharing for male and female creative staff and flexible working practices.

“Obviously it’s not just our profession having to deal with this, but in this industry it’s often a challenge to manage individuals needs against a clients demands, which can dictate the number of hours in a working day.”

Linda Holmes, Parenthesis

“The traditional flow of young creative talent South is still a problem and one that can only be addressed by the growth in number and reputation of local agencies and through closer partnership between industry and education. You can have loads of potential talent but if they don’t know there’s a local opportunity then they are going to look elsewhere.”

Alistair Sim, Love

Are there specific areas within the industry

that attract a lack of suitable candidates?

In terms of the design industry I’d have to say no. The design industry in the regions is very strong, much stronger than, say, advertising, in that there are a number of examples of world-class design agencies. The ‘brain drain’ of advertising talent is more prolific as a result.”

Alistair Sim, Love

“There is a lack of good ideas. A lack of innovative typography. Layout skills are unusual to find. Potential employees need to fit in, to socially contribute to the design and studio environment, to be able to get on with and to communicate with fellow employees, clients and suppliers. It is hard to find people who can do this. Also, people I want to spend a lot of time with, who entertain me and make me laugh, where are they?”

Alan Herron, The Chase

Are there enough quality students coming

through the educational system?

“Yes, of course there are, but the major challenge faced by graduates each year is the limited number of vacancies.

“Typically it’s only large design agencies that have strong links with individual universities, and operate a formal graduate placement/recruitment system.

“This is commonly perceived as a time/resource/investment issue but it is an area where smaller agencies are missing a trick. Universities and colleges are very keen to forge links with businesses of all sizes.

“What may seem like a day out of the office can actually help to shape careers, keep talent in the region and raise the profile of the your business.”

Alistair Sim, Love

“There’s always quality, it’s just hard to find, especially people who are technically proficient and have good ideas.

“We’re very fortunate that, throughout TDR’s 19-year history, ‘quality students’ have managed to find us.”

Nick Bax, The Designers Republic

Are design-based courses evolving to keep

pace with the changes within the industry?

“In terms of technical knowledge, yes. Although saying that all the best applicants seem to be self-taught at almost everything. In terms of developing good ideas, no, but at least some of the best courses give students the ammo to think.”

Nick Bax, Designers Republic

“Hmm, I think not. It is my experience that courses are interested in filling the course, getting students through the course and perhaps helping them to get a degree, and providing false expectations of what the students can expect in the work environment. Indeed I’m not sure whether producing employable students is on the agenda of some colleges.”

Alan Herron, The Chase

Do specific regional factors effect

recruiting for your business?

“Students who show a preference to staying in a particular area or region are limiting their potential. If the opportunity is right, even if it’s in Timbuktu, you go there.”

Alan Herron, The Chase

Any other comments?

“Yes. We’re looking for a junior designer at the moment – talented graduates should get in touch.”

Nick Bax, Designers Republic


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +