Is pitching good or bad for the design industry? We hear the thoughts of Base Design and Nihilo
Pitching for work is the process of devising concepts or designs based on a potential client’s brief. From a selection of candidates, the project will be commissioned to the favoured proposal. When creatives talk about ‘pitching work’ it’s often accompanied by the word ‘win.’ How to ‘win’ the project. “Just won a brilliant pitch!!” What happens to the studios or creatives that lose out? And more importantly, why are studios pitted against each other in the first place, if paid work isn’t guaranteed? It’s a hot topic for sure. With that in mind, to help us navigate the discussion we asked Nihilo’s Emunah Winer and Margaret Kerr-Jarrett, and Base Design’s Partner & Creative Director Thierry Brunfaut for their thoughts.
First and foremost, “for the industry as a whole, we think standard ways of pitching work are detrimental.” Winer and Kerr-Jarrett tell us. For the Israel-based branding agency, their reasoning isn’t necessarily rooted in the time or work spent creating pitches, but rather “the perspective it perpetuates towards creative partners in general.” And, with decades of experience in the industry with Base Design, Brunfaut certainly agrees. “Pitching for free is simply nonsense,” he says, “it’s work, and involves many hours of talented people giving their best.” We’re probably all familiar with the industry’s pressing issue of being perpetually undervalued. It’s an unhealthy preconception that creative businesses can both reinforce and fall victim to. “In which other industry would a company invest such resources (people, time, money) without getting paid?” Brunfaut asks. “None.” In a similar fashion to studios asking interns to work for free, free pitching is one example of how this mindset materialises in the real world.
In which other industry would a company invest such resources without getting paid?
Winer and Kerr-Jarrett explain this viewpoint further, and why it’s insulting to creatives. “It’s the client saying to the agency ‘prove you’re worth our money.’ We believe the opposite conversation should be had – the agency should be saying to the client ‘prove you’re worth our creative capital,’” they say. In most scenarios, the clients with the ‘best’ and most exciting projects hold the cards, and therefore want to be wooed over by the best design. According to Brunfaut, most of these are only accessible via free pitching – so creative agencies consider it an investment. “And that can put us at risk,” he adds. “Since pitching has become ‘institutionalised,’ most clients believe pitching is absolutely normal; that’s how things are done. It’s not.”
Does paid pitching – where creatives are reimbursed for their efforts – fare better in the eyes of our interviewees? As a ‘lesser evil,’ it demonstrates that a client values the time and effort dedicated to creating pitches. Still, as they reveal, whether it’s paid or unpaid, pitching as a whole is far from perfect. “The pitching process strips out the project’s essential parts,” Brunfaut explains to us. This includes: quality of the collaboration, mutual engagement and agreement on what’s (really) at stake, and a proper understanding of the client’s context. As these elements are sacrificed from the initial client-studio relationship, it’s not something Nihilo condone, either. “Pitching is like any other iffy practice (like switching up your process, giving discounts, cutting your timeline), it may be ok once in a while if it’s a dream client, but we wouldn’t recommend making it a regular thing.”
We will never do executional work in the proposal phase.
If a client hopes to invest in Nihilo as a creative partner, Winer and Kerr-Jarrett tell us, “they need to invest in our thinking and our creative perspective.” It’s about trust and investing in the people, rather than “an ultra-specific outcome that is going to be pitched against other agencies’ ultra-specific outcomes.” Whilst they don’t agree with ‘pitching’ as a whole, they do note that providing a ‘taster’ of their thinking can be helpful for a client to buy into that thinking. “We will never do executional work in the proposal phase,” they tell us, “but we will spend some time considering and sharing examples of questions we’d need to ask to make the project a success – not as a display of final work, but as a display of how we work.” Following this approach often removes the need to ‘pitch’ themselves at all.
Like Nihilo, Base Design are eager to move away from the practice of pitching, full stop. “We need to ‘deinstitutionalise’ pitching,” Brunfaut suggests. “The responsibility is not only on the client’s side: our role as agencies is also to change the process and clarify our point.” The Creative Director then reveals Base’s internal memo, aptly named “to pitch or not to pitch,” that includes the following questions below:
1 – Why are you pitching us instead of choosing us directly? 2 – Is it paid? If yes, how much? If not, why not? 3 – Is the pitch brief different from the final project we would create and execute? 4 – What is the total budget if we win it? 5 – Who are the agencies we are competing against? 6 – Who’s going to decide? Who is the jury?
Allow the client to get to know you personally.
“Most clients will hate to provide answers on all these points, but we are confronting them for the right reasons and in the interest of the project. And I also always suggest asking this last question to the pitcher: “When was the last time you and your company worked for free?” It will start a good conversation!”
This is what lies at the heart of the situation, right? Navigating a relationship through clear communication. It can be tricky for a client, perhaps someone less familiar with design, to trust a studio with their project. From Brunfaut’s perspective, pitching also stems from fear and laziness. “Fear of engagement, and laziness to take the appropriate time and commitment to search and select the right creative partner.”
This is exactly why relationships are key.
Nihilo emphasise that good work comes from engaging in a collaborative process with skilled people and with an open mind, “and that’s simply not possible with pitching.” A lot of nuance, something that can’t be conveyed with pitching, is simply lost.
As Brunfaut nicely summarises; great work builds up with dialogue, time and trust. “Pitching is precisely the contrary: it’s like throwing darts at a target with our eyes closed,” he points out. “The key is to engage in a dialogue. Allow the client to get to know you personally. Help them to forget their fears, and to commit to a potentially great project together. They may change their mind, understand why pitching is perhaps not the best idea after all, and choose you because of who you are, and how you already approached them confidently and constructively.”