Here’s why I changed my mind.
Recently I heard an interview with Gary Mehigan of Master Chef fame.
Asked how he got the gig, he answered ‘by working my butt off to lift my professional profile and attract attention’.
Mehigan wrote uncommissioned articles for weekly newspapers and judged regional cooking competitions for free at the same time as working long hours in his own restaurants. In short, he plied his trade anywhere he could to build his brand.
It worked – the producers of an unknown show called Master Chef asked him to audition for the role of one of three judges. He got the gig and now he reaps the benefits.
Similarly, one of our good friends now has his dream full time job – a guide in one of our major cultural institutions – only because of the years he invested there as a volunteer.
I would argue both of these examples are very similar to a designer free pitching. Gary was not paid for the additional work he did outside his restaurant, in essence it was ‘volunteer’ work.
Designers get new clients by proving they are able to solve communication problems with design. Those of us with the runs on the board can do this by referral, or by a folio but that’s just not possible for those starting off in the profession.
So how can a new designer – or a designer wanting to broaden their skills or change their market – prove their capabilities? By demonstrating their skill.
I was recently talking to a studio owner that was in a dry spell. She literally had no client work for her studio. After cleaning the studio from top to bottom, her design team was spending idle hours surfing the net. Her answer was to hold a brainstorming session about the type of work they would like to do (packaging) and then visit a local supermarket researching potential clients (retail products) that (looked like) they were not currently using designers.
They then redesigned the packages and made an appointment with the relevant brand manager armed with the ‘before’ and ‘after’ prototypes. The exercise had a 1 in 3 success rate, with the added advantage that the designers were doing what they do best – practicing their craft – rather than watching YouTube videos of cats.
Surely that exercise is entrepreneurial; forging new markets and finding business sectors that have never used design before. Sure it's a gamble, but if the alternative is having to lay off staff, or worse, close your studio what have you got to lose?
I argue it’s a designer’s prerogative to give away their skill for free and it could be a restriction of trade to refuse them the right to be entrepreneurial.
A big caveat:
This is completely different from, and I am absolutely against, clients requesting work done for free. Especially when they ask a number of design studios to respond to a common brief. And specifically when it's under a threat of participating or no longer getting future work. That’s just blackmail.
What makes it completely different is that the designer loses control of how they spend their time, their design skills and hence, their money.
I don’t think many people who are against ‘free pitching’ make that distinction.
For the record, in 30 years I have lost two (great) clients to ‘free pitches’.
The first time was about 15 years ago when I was working for a large superannuation fund.
One of Melbourne’s better branding agencies wanted to enter this burgeoning market segment so they free pitched my client. Completely uncommissioned they approached the client with designs for a complete rebrand of their publications. Publications I had been designing (in my defence to tight time frames and budgets) for over five years.
They gambled, and they won. The client was impressed with the new designs and I lost the account.
To my knowledge they still work for the company, and do a lot of work in the industry, so the time invested in (and the gamble of doing) the free pitch has well and truly paid off.
The second one was quite recently – just a couple of years ago.
A new CEO came in above the communications team of a long-term client – I had been doing their work since 1996. He directed the communications team to approach three studios to pitch for their annual report(s).
They asked three design studios to submit (free) designs for the reports that I had been doing for 18 years.
I declined to produce designs and instead submitted a very detailed written strategy.
The written submission didn’t cut it. The CEO wanted to see pictures, and pictures he got. Both the other studios submitted designs, and one of them won the gig. Again, it was a studio keen to build a portfolio of clients in that industry.
It’s worth noting there is a distinct difference in these examples.
In the first case it was the designer with the power. They chose to produce designs in their timeline, and really, to their brief.
In the second example the client had the power. The designers could have taken the power by refusing to supply – it’s all about choice.
So, we return to the start of the argument.
Real empowerment is having options in the way you run your business.
To get new business, or enter a new market, a designer could choose to run an advertisement in a trade journal, or sponsor a relevant conference or even hire a PR consultancy. All would use the studio’s advertising budget. An alternative method to get new business would be to use the same ‘budget’ to buy time from your own studio to design a solution for a prospective client.
Surely the choice of how to spend the marketing budget should be made by the studio?
Carol is co-founder of Mackay Branson, a design studio currently celebrating 30 years in business. More at mbdesign.com.au