Work for free or for full price, but never for cheap.

I’d like to agree with this as it kind of looks right on paper, but I’d have to add a caveat regarding pitching for design based projects – in this case free is bad.

It’s an age old debate and covered so eloquently in an article by Andy Budd back in 2006.

Recent events have revived this issue and it’s one I’d like to deal with once and for all. 

Recently we were asked to provide a potential client with a’design boost’ for their marketing, some ideas for emails and site layouts.  Now the title ‘design boost’ already gave us reservations as to how this project may develop, but the view was taken that client would be a good fit and there was lots of scope to help them improve their on-going online presence.

So with the carrot of future work dangling in our faces and an initial meeting requesting design concepts and ‘ideas’ we were at a junction, should we move forward with our heads or our hearts. Our hearts told us to throw everything at it and invest in the opportunity. Our heads told us that if we design the solution now, the clients in-house design team could just take the ideas without paying a penny. By pitching in visuals we’d either solve the problem and retain our design kudos, or fail in the clients eyes. We chose hearts and a week of effort was used to produce a pitch presentation which was well received. The client loved the approach and design thinking and we felt happy that everything was well received and we’d done our best.

We received a request to put a cost together for the work based on a vague requirement. The team had a meeting and took a view on future work; client fit etc. and priced the job at almost cost, with our approach based on current best practice and the large amount of experience we have in a project of this kind. There was some initial back and forth communications with client and then… radio silence. That is until a promotional email arrives in my inbox from this company that I can only say was extremely heavily influenced by the work we pitched.

I personally felt very angry… Violated… How dare they take what we did for free and get away with it! 

Unfortunately this is all too common when approaching pitches in this manner. It’s a calculated risk that’s heavily weighted in favour of one party. Thankfully we rarely approach pitches like this.

A far more positive, respectful and productive approach for us starts with a receiving well considered RFP. We then invest our time in responding to this, engaging with the client through meetings and conversation, culminating in a final document which will outline our approach, expertise, initial costing and hopefully justifying why we are the right partner for this project. Ideally the team are then invited to present document and a selection/decision is made. This is the start of a relationship based on trust, transparency and respect. If appointed we can move forward together and start the design and project process in earnest. This enables the client to see how we propose to work, what they’ll get and what the project will actually cost. 

My view is that if we initially produced all the design and creative upfront, for free, the whole process has already been devalued.

From an IP perspective it could easily be used to boost flagging creativity, or highly influence another approach (something that’s subjective and costly to challenge legally) or equally as undesirable just discarded altogether.

The other side to this is if you are successful and win the work, it is difficult to recoup the initial costs and this work may need to be discarded/sacrificed once the project discovery phase begins. By solving the problem at the pitch stage it makes it very difficult to charge for it later on and the foundations of the client/agency relationship is already on shaky ground. 

So, why should we have to give so much away for free?