Pitching for work, when/how/should you do it?

I recently saw an interesting ad on Facebook asking spot of pitching to be made for a rebranding project. It was for a cultural organisation currently undergoing a refurb and seeking designers to help them rebrand once they re-open to the public.

The organisation asked designers to ‘pitch’ for the project, providing a written response to the brief, along with some background and budget. It got me thinking about how often designers seek out pitching opportunities rather than firing shots in the dark – which is what cold pitching feels like sometimes.

My questions then, I suppose, are: when should designers pitch for projects, should we be seeking the opportunities out, and when should we say no?

What is pitching?

Pitching has always been around in design, and if we’re not careful, it can mean getting ripped off if designs need to be submitted from the off. I always avoid those like the plague, especially if they expect it for free.

What I’m talking about here, though, is when designers are asked to submit an outline for the project, as was requested in the ad I mentioned above.

From the organisation’s point of view, they’re seeking several ideas as to what a designer might be able to bring to their rebranding. They ask for ideas that represent the direction they want – thinking about structure, tone, and overall voice of the place – as well as the type of demographic of their audience.

By having many designers submit their ideas, they get a taste of what those designers can bring to the project and can select the one that they feel will be the best match for their brand going forward.

When pitching goes wrong

The ad that inspired this post (for which, by the way, I am (a little in two minds) putting my own pitch together…) is, I believe, a strong and responsible one. But I’ve experienced situations, both from myself and others I’ve spoken to, where sending that pitch has not gone well.

I’m well aware that some unscrupulous businesses will be more than happy to take advantage of the pitching process. Here’s something that I witnessed during my time at an agency years ago – it’s stuck with me, and I’ve heard that it’s happened to other people, too.

They had been asked to pitch for a job by a business that wanted ideas for a branding project. The pitch was sent, and after several weeks, nothing had come back. Assuming that we’d been unsuccessful, we kind of forgot about it. That was until we discovered that another agency they’d employed had, in fact, a scarily large proportion of the same ideas – too many to be purely coincidental.

This scenario isn’t uncommon. A business will ask another, cheaper agency to follow the structure and ideas of someone else. It’s not the designer’s fault – they have no idea. They’re simply being given a brief to follow.

It can be off-putting, and to be honest, I don’t really know how this situation could have been avoided. I’d like to say, look for warning signs, but they’re not always there. How can you possibly prove it after the fact? It can be complicated.

The only advice I can give is to do your research. If it’s a local business, ask around. If something feels off, trust your instincts. Should you avoid pitching? That’s a hard one to answer. Would you be missing out on some fantastic opportunities? Maybe. Is there a chance you’d take a loss? Sure – but if you don’t play, you can’t win, right?

Is there a right way to pitch?

You really have to dig down into what the job is asking for. How much information do they want? Do they want samples of actual designs? Or, like in this case, is it just a written outline or initial thoughts?

Remember – if you’re doing actual designs to show them, you’re essentially working for free. If they were to go ahead and use them, then you’re the one who loses out. They might be asking for samples of past work, which is better, but never give up your time and talents for nothing.

I like the sound of the ‘written response’. It lets me think about the ‘how’ without revealing anything in an obvious way. It allows me to tell the client where I’d like to take the project, why, and how I’d go about it. It kind of inspires and forces me to think beyond the design work in a visual sense.

What are your thoughts on pitching? Have you any experiences or advice? Any horror stories – or big wins? I’d be really interested to hear them.