To Pitch or Not to Pitch?

Understanding how people actually make business and personal decisions can be a vital part in how creative professionals approach winning work and growing their clientele basis. How to do this without the need to pitch their work is what’s going to separate the specialists from the generalists.

It’s been a common practice over the years within the client engagement process to expect, require and ultimately based the decision to hire creative services. Especially in the areas of lead and conversions in that, business development specialists would seek out the potential business to business or service as a solution firms to collaborate with, and once the nominees are narrowed down, the organization would be able to make their final decision having requested for a “demo” or some feasible pitch. These requests are usually meant to give the requesting business the “warm and fuzzies” about their decisions to contract a design firm or the occasional boutique design studio.  They typically feel if they can measure or project the quantifiable value of dollars spent on design, they will be able to communication and possibly convince their executives that, this firm or that studio is the better option.  They believe they are able to effectively do this because they were recipients of a pitch or proposal prior to making their “informed decision.” 

However, this method or approach has been proven to be “bogus” by many experts on both the clientele and service-side of the industry.  Just the same, throughout my years as a design professional,  I too had often felt a bit intimidated and uneasy about providing proposals or having to conduct a pitch to prospective clients.  Not because I felt inadequate or unqualified but, because I often felt, despite the research I did and despite the experiences I had up to that point, I felt like it was a “dog and pony show.”  In that, here I am competing on work not based on actual value or mere competency but rather, who gave  the better pitch, demo and proposal only.  Knowing you are not always going to be the cheapest nor the most expensive is not enough to make any businessman feel confident alone.  We understand that numbers are straight forward, and past performances can hold their own weight in the overall equation.  However, due to design firms and studios alike trying to compete for work for essentially, the wrong reasons, they have frankly, messed up the game of competition amongst “expert practitioners.”  Yes, I did just say “expert” and I meant it just the same. 

Clients:  There’s no need to receive a pitch…

There are two scenarios to this explanation of why there is more often, no need to ask for your designer to pitch to you.  Both of which, are common to most people directly or indirectly. These examples are an approach often taken by many people who “just need” a thing done, need a quick remedy or, are not sure of a better approach to take.  Noting wrong with the quick project if it suits you of course.  “Quickies” have their place in the creative services world too. But there is another example which is a more direct or focused approach to “fixing” the issue.  It feels better as a result of both, the decisions and actions which proceed after their initial approach has been set in motion.

  1. The General Approach:  Don’t Do
    The day comes where you need to go to the “doctor.”  You have been feeling a bit ill and notice a few symptoms which you perceive to be what we often refer to as “the common cold.”  You initially may have visited your local drug store and picked up a few items which you assume (based on the symptoms) will help ease your illness.  After a week of taking these over the counter drugs, you decide you’d better make an appointment with a “general practitioner” at the local clinic.  You see the doctor and the “interview” begins.  You are asked a series of  both relevant and what you think are irrelevant questions.  The doctor performs all the typical field tests and touches because well, that’s the most common practice for your “common cold” symptoms which you explained you were having.  So, a few nods and “uh huhs”, your doctor begins writing a scrip for some medications.  After the doctor is finished, they  give you a brief explanation of what they think your problem is, hand you the prescription and tell you to “take this” for a week or two and if you are not feeling better, make another appointment to come see them again.

  2. The Specialist Approach:This scenario is similar with a twist. This time, you truly understand your illness requires a specialist.  This time around you understand your general physician may not be able to help cure your problem. So, we will fast forward to your appointment date with your specialist.  You arrive, walk in to the examination room and begin the “interview.”  Before you can begin to explain your issues, the specialist begins with a series of important questions which dig a bit deeper into you history, your behaviors and practices.  They are trying to understand what led you to the current state you’re in. Overall your examination is more in depth. You are sent to get x-rays, an MRI, possibly some blood work, all to help the specialist determine the best coarse of treatment to get you back to health.  Even more, their treatment plan, their prescription for your journey to health is set to not only get you back to health, it’s also for you stay healthy, get stronger and maintain a lifestyle which is most beneficial to you.  In summary, your treatment is more specific, more detailed, more catered to your problem. There are measures put in place to accompany your get-well plan and sustainability.  Their experience told them, you need some post treatment plan(s) to ensure you don’t repeat your problem in the future.

This is the distinct difference between a general and in expert practitioner. 

This is assuming that, the client, has a distinct problem and is searching for the expert who can help fix their problem.  Compared to the former where, yes, they know there is something which needs fixing, but because they went to a generalist, they may or may not get the remedy they actually need.  Because a lot of clients find themselves in search of the solution, they find the need to ask for various pitches or proposals which they hope will make them feel better about the money they stand to spend to hopefully fix the problem.  All the while, not knowing if they created another issue which will lead them to another generalist or, back to the original designer who sold them a “prescription” which didn’t completely remedy their woes.

Either way, you have to be confident in the diagnosis you receive from the specialist you hire to fix your problem.  While free pitching is not ever going away completely, it’s important to understand what is actually transpiring when a client asks a design firm or freelancer to pitch their creative ideas.  You as the client, are asking the designer to offer their creativity and expertise for free.  Yes, It’s true.  You are asking for your problem to be fixed in theory first, so you can then, decide if you want to pay that designer to actually put in the additional time and effort to deliver good on their ideas and creativity.  To the designer that sounds a bit absurd.  But if we use symatry in thinking, we can agree that, we wouldn’t nor could’t approach a doctor nor a plumber just the same.  Diagnosis and ideas are valuable.  Mixed with expertise, ideas and strategy is very valuable to solving business problems.  

So, why is it expected to be any different with a professional in the Design Industry? It shouldn’t be.  But sadly, it has been common practice even still.  In his book, “Win Without The Pitch, Manifesto”, author Blair Enns explains,

“…When the alternatives to hiring us (designers) are many, the client will dictate price. He will set the terms of the engagement. He will determine how many of our ideas and how much of our advice we need to part with, for free, in order to decide if he will choose to work with us…


Enns goes on to elaborate on the client-engagement dynamics explaining the sway of power being on the client’s side due to the few alternatives to their problems of design.  As long as there are designers who aren’t willing to differentiate themselves via skill set and areas of expertise, there will be the need for those designers to pitch themselves to win the work they seek.  Likewise, as long as there are clients who are unwilling to seek out the right specialist for their business problem, they too, are subject to needing the pitch and premature proposal in hopes of making the right decisions.  Both are ill-advised and both are sure fire methods to fall short of your goals surrounding design as a solution to your business problem. A better approach to this dilemma is to allow for the journey of discovery and diagnosis.

wwtp-bookVideo Talk:

Author Blair Enns emphasizes in his Manifesto, “the need to diagnose before prescribing” solutions to clients. Much like other trades, the expectation to receive all you need to know before you make a decision is not uncommon. Whether it’s the auto shop, the dentist, the general contractor or, the fashion designer, you should expect to get a survey of the problem or impediment, a strategic plan to fix it and the costs associated.  But don’t allow yourself to be short sided of the strategy aspect. Don’t allow yourself to settle for less than a discovery and analyzation which yes, should also come a cost. 

This is not to say every project requires a detailed diagnosis, prescription and an exhaustive proposal.  However, having a feasible and comprehensive statement of work can offer just the amount of assurance you need to feel good about the business transaction.  In addition, I am not opposed to providing a proposal to a client when needed. To clarify, I firmly believe in proposals. The difference I have found is that, providing a premature proposal can be catastrophic to both the project at hand and possibly the relationship too.  

Simply put, you are not trying to grow a business just to lose. I guarantee you, neither is the designer or firm you are considering collaborating with.  Derive a discovery process which works best for you when embarking on a design solution.  This process can offer not only a comfort to yourself but also, communicate to your designer, that you actually do have a process which they can benefit from too. For a designer, coming into a client’s environment can be made much more smoother if they understand the culture of your business or team.  They often feel less uneasy and more enabled to help when they don’t have to spend time trying to figure out the culture and climate during the initial call or consultation. 

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