Why asking us to do a creative pitch or speculative design is wrong

Design / 26.11.13
Mark Vaesen

Increasingly we’re being invited by prospective clients to “pitch” for their project.  This isn’t the same as providing a quote or tendering for a job; this is where we’re being asked to create designs based on a written brief, to present to the client in the hope they’ll choose us.  This old-skool practice is usually known as a “creative pitch” or “speculative design” and we think it’s wrong.  Here we explain why.

A first hand story of creative pitching

Earlier this year, shortly after we had re-branded as Tomango, we were approached by a medium-sized, high-profile insurance/healthcare company and asked to pitch for a big project; it included a new brand identity, extensive range of marketing material and suite of several websites.  It looked like just the sort of client and project we were after, so we agreed to meet with them to present our design ideas.

We spent nearly two days doing research, developing concepts, finalising artwork and organising the presentation.  The day of the presentation arrived and we rocked up all ready to wow the client with our ideas, which were well thought out, innovative and exciting.  Within ten minutes of the presentation, the client casually informed us that they’d “been thinking about it” and that the brief had changed.  Radically.

All our work had been wasted.  The new brief included things outside our skillset and we knew in our hearts that this revised project wasn’t right for us.  So we left, feeling utterly dejected and pretty miffed – but having learnt a valuable lesson.

We won’t do that again

We decided on the way back from that presentation that we wouldn’t ever do a creative pitch again – no matter who the prospect was.  We talked at length about what bugged us so much about the whole debacle, and realised that it wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction following a bad meeting.  There are several very valid reasons why speculative design as a process is just plain old wrong.

What’s so wrong with it?

On the face of it, you might ask what’s wrong with a prospect – potentially investing a large sum of money – asking to see some design concepts before they commit to a project.  After all, it gives them a chance to assess the quality of the design work and see whether we’ve understood the brief.  But when you sit back and think about it, you soon see the flaws in the process.  Here are just a few:

1. We don’t have all the information

No matter how detailed your design brief is, we’re not going to have all the information we need to create the best design for you.

We need to understand your business model and your objectives, your brand values and principles, who your competitors are and how your project fits in with your wider marketing strategy.

Perhaps most important of all, we need to understand your customers or users.

Until everyone involved with the project gets this, any design is going to be way off-target.

2. The client doesn’t have any input in the creative process

Good design is a collaborative process between the designer and the client.  The designer brings expertise, knowledge and experience of aesthetics and usability.  The client brings in-depth knowledge about their business and its target markets.

Both of these things need to come together to produce a design that works.  Don’t deny your own importance in the process.

3. It becomes a beauty contest – judged by the MD

The point of a speculative design is to impress the client and win the project.  So the target audience becomes the client – not the end user.

The best agency for the job may not be chosen for the project because of superficial, banal reasons.  The MD might have an aversion to a particular image or colour used on a design, or on the day one agency comes in, she might just be in a bad mood.

This is a bad basis for choosing a key supplier to your business.

4. It’s a huge waste of everybody’s time

We spent two days preparing our pitch for the insurance company.  Another half day was spent travelling to and from the meeting and doing the presentation itself.

The other agencies that had been invited to pitch probably spent a similar amount of time on their designs, and even the client spent time attending the presentations.

And then, when the client realises the speculative design isn’t fit for purpose, it’s discarded when the project starts anyway.  Of course, the reason for this is that not only was the design created to sell (see point 3), it is also largely “uninformed” (see point 1).

5. It costs the client money

What might not be immediately obvious is that ultimately the client is the one paying for all this waste.

To stay in business, every company needs to recover their cost of sale, right?  Speculative work forms part of the sales process, so agencies will charge for it, or include it in the cost of the project if they win it.

But of course, it’s worse than that.  The agency also needs to recover the cost of the speculative work it’s done for the projects they didn’t win.  The result?  Well, if you work with a design agency that agrees to do speculative work, you’re paying for all their failed sales pitches.  Why should you pay for other people’s design work?

A creative pitch, you say?  Thanks, but no thanks

So, when you ask us to do free work to win your project, don’t be offended when we say no.  We’re not just saying it because we’re lazy, or arrogant, or think we’re too important for all that.

We’re saying it because it’s not the right way to go about getting the best end result for you – the client.

Ok, so what’s the right way to go about it?

So where does that leave you?  If it’s wrong to ask for a speculative design, how can you make an informed decision about which design agency to appoint?

The answer lies in their portfolio.  Any decent agency should have a good selection of their work available to see online.  If you want to see something that’s relevant to your project and you can’t see it in their portfolio, ask.  The portfolio gives you an indicator as to the quality of the agency’s work.

As well as looking at the pictures, find out more about the background to the project.  Contact some of the agency’s clients and ask a few questions.  Did the designer understand the brief?  Did they provide useful and positive input and suggestions?  How did they deal with criticism?  Were they flexible?  Importantly, did the design fulfil its objectives?

Let’s talk

So please, don’t ask us to do a speculative design or a creative pitch for your project; or if you do then don’t be offended when we politely say no.

A large dollop of acknowledgement goes to Paul Boag’s excellent blog post Why speculative design is wrong, which reassured us that our policy was right, and provided inspiration for this piece.

If you are interested in finding out more about how Tomango can help you with your web design project, get in touch.