First, the sour grapes. Last year we entered a tender process with Defra for a new website contract for the Committee on Climate Change. We had created a logo and brand style, it was a cause we believed in, and we hoped designing and building the website would be a great portfolio piece for us. The process involved a tedious and time sapping questionnaire, a design element and a presentation to various members of the tender team including procurement and communications. We were given a timescale to prepare that included just 2 days to pull together an in-depth presentation AND designs.
Our final 'score' was 68.34% - and the winning supplier scored 68.58%.
We were, naturally, bitterly disappointed, not least by the actual process (which included sending 4 printed copies - over 20 pages in each, a bizarre practice for a body so concerned with the depletion of our natural resources), the time scales, the nature of the presentation, the 'scoring system' etc.
Would I be so upset had we won the contract? In all honesty - yes. I had already decided that I would voice my concerns following the tender, even had we been given the project.
I have since visited the final site, for various reasons: 1. out of curiosity, 2. to see if any of the designs we had submitted were used in any way, and 3. to see how the competition interpreted the brief, and used our initial branding.
The site is: Committee on Climate Change and here is a direct quote from the brief:
'The website should use the latest digital technologies to ensure that it is interactive, dynamic and accessible for all audiences. It needs to look fresh, vibrant and creative.'
In no way am I here to judge another agency's work, in fact I'd welcome their feedback on the process. I just have to ask how creativity and service driven work can be judged on a scoring system such as Defra's.
Free pitching is, and always will be a hot topic in the industry. Agencies will continue to do it, and clients will always insist on it. It's a vicious circle. The problem is that because it is SO ingrained in our culture, clients are dumbfounded when you refuse to do it. When large government agencies and global corporations insist on it, the notion trickles down through every level of business. We were recently approached by a prospective client looking to set up a one-man-band estate agency. He insisted on free pitching. I explained we couldn't do that as it costs us time and money, and would not get the best out of our studio. To illustrate the point in his own sector, I asked him if he would ask 3 builders to build 3 different houses, and at the end of the process choose one, change it around a bit and tell the other two they could just knock theirs down. His reply? "Let's just say I have not seen any buildings that you or the other agencies have built which amaze me." Incredible - I would have to ask why you would approach an agency whose 'houses' you didn't like in the first place!
My point here is that it is inherent in every level of business we encounter. Is it possible to stop it? I don't think so. But maybe we're just not shouting loudly enough about it. Maybe we could take a stand as an industry. The next time you're in a 5-way pitch, try to find out who else is involved, perhaps the 5 agencies agree on submitting nothing but agency credentials and past case studies. The issue will always be that in a competitive industry such as ours, you're always looking for an edge, and if that means submitting ideas when no-one else will, then it's inevitable this will continue.
Perhaps we can make some effort though, and so I'm putting the case forward for a No Free Pitching Month. Every agency across the land should stand, shoulder to shoulder and refuse (for a month at least) to do any free pitches. Would it work? I don't know. But it's worth a try! If we can educate our clients, even a small degree, about the negative aspects of the practice, then we will have done some good.
Now, where's the sugar for those grapes.....
Simon Harmer is Creative Director of Marmalade on Toast a creative web design company based in London and Winchester.