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Investing in retail design: do free pitches ever really work?

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Investing in retail design: do free pitches ever really work?

A recent article in Design Week – the UK’s leading design magazine – featured a discussion on whether agencies should get involved in creative pitching. By that, they mean giving away studio time and creative ideas for free (or for a very small fee) so that a client can test an agency ’s capabilities before hiring them.

Currently, there is no more contentious a topic in our profession than ‘free pitching’. It makes temperatures rise and draws steam from the ears of usually placid design directors. Why? Well, it’s because free pitches are not only expensive for agencies to deliver, but their end results are also questionable for clients.

The argument against free pitching is simple – there is no other industry where you would expect a service provider to work for days or weeks for free just to aid a decision-making process. For instance, you wouldn’t expect to ‘sample’ a free meal from a range of restaurants before choosing where to eat that night.

Of course, whilst many agencies reject free pitching requests, it does still exist, but it’s only large agencies that can afford to participate in them because their overheads allow them to right off the costs as part of their client acquisition budgets. However, the same is not true for medium to smaller design agencies who have much tighter margins and whose teams are usually fully employed on paid client work.

Most importantly from the client perspective, outcomes tend to be poor from free pitches. They simply don’t work well as a creative agency selection tool because most pitch briefs tend to be scant with very limited background information. Therefore, creative teams can just have fun making ‘cool stuff’ to impress rather than being properly informed about a client’s business and delivering breakthrough design solutions borne out of critical thinking.

So, if free pitching is such an ineffective evaluation process, how should clients go about choosing the right design agency for their needs? Here we offer our top five agency selection steps…

1. Past performance:

If there is an incumbent design agency, clients need to be clear about why they want to ‘jump ship’. Performance to-date should inform what to look for from a new agency. Consider the attributes of the current agency and use these as a benchmark – what has it done well and what has it done less well. Be clear with prospective new agencies about the service, process, and project outcomes that will be expected.

2. Project scope and scale:

Before starting to search for a new design agency, think about the size of the budget and the scale of what is to be achieved. Is major fundamental change required or simply incremental improvements. This will determine the experience and skill sets needed from the new design agency. It might even help decide on the size of the agency – it’s never good to be a large fish in a small pond and vice versa.

3. Be selective:

Without any peer referrals, a shortlist of design agencies to interview can be drawn up by researching projects that have impressed the budget holders. It’s relatively easy to investigate which agency was responsible for specific design projects and dig into their websites to glean more background information. Explore the case studies and client testimonials and try and talk to a couple of the agencies’ clients to find out what they were/are like to work with.

4. Assessing skill sets:

Of course, what suits one client may not suit another. Clients need to ensure that a prospective new agency has the capabilities to deliver a tailor-made project for their business. This doesn’t mean looking only at their creative output – ask the agencies what problems they have solved for clients and what outcomes they have achieved. Design effectiveness should be the goal of any good design agency’s deliverables.

5. And then there’s chemistry:

At the end of the day, if all the above criteria are satisfied it tends to come down to the people. Meet the team who will deliver the project – is there a good ‘fit’. It’s no different to searching for a new employee, the personality of the agency’s creative team is all important and the ‘chemistry’ must feel right from the very first meeting.

As one contributor to the Design Week article concluded, “design work doesn’t start with a drawing, it starts with an understanding of what a client wants to achieve”. We couldn’t agree more. Free pitches just don’t provide the detailed insight or time required for a design agency to really show what they are capable of. Our in-depth familiarisation process at the start of a new client project is critical to unlocking creative opportunities and delivering breakthrough results for the client.


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