Why we need a manifesto for pitching

Craig Ward draws up a contract designed to hold agencies to account and protect us from time-wasters.

It's been a weird year, work-wise. Not a bad year by any means, just a weird one. Looking at my 'Completed Projects' folder for 2014, I see eight projects that went live and six pitches. Six completely unsuccessful pitches, I hasten to add. Six for six. Not a great ratio, really.

I don't take these things personally. Someone more self-conscious than myself might start to think that something was wrong with their work if they saw a 100 per cent failure-to-convert record, but when I look at what actually happened with those projects, things become a little clearer.

The level of mental involvement and the amount of work required for these pitches varied greatly. Some soaked up several weeks of my time and involved various rounds of revisions, while others needed just a moodboard accompanied by an estimate. Even when I'm simply asked to walk clients through a process and show them ideas, I feel like I'm having to mentally, pre-emptively do the work. My processes tend to be rather convoluted, which has always been a problem with my approach - the will is there, but not every client has the time or budget to create things for real.

Idea farms

As it transpires, five out of the six projects I pitched for this year never actually saw the light of day. The other one I just wasn't right for, or my ideas sucked or whatever. Who cares? I can let that go. But for five out of six projects not even to be awarded to anyone that was asked to pitch is a pretty shameful statistic - and it serves as further evidence that there are a lot of companies out there that are still using pitches as a form of idea-farming.

Coupled with that is the sheer amount of wasted effort. Imagine that three other people pitched on each of those projects, and that each spent the same amount of time as me. Three weeks of my time spent on one pitch becomes twelve wasted weeks in total. The man-hours spent per year, industry-wide, pursuing projects like these must be staggering.

So what's the solution? It's tricky, because having been on both sides of the fence, I understand why sometimes putting a project out to tender is necessary. For instance, if you're trying to do something new and you need to see how someone responds to the brief. What it really comes down to is simply having a little respect for those being asked to pitch.

The three-step solution

Casting my mind back to a slightly drunken conversation with one Mario Hugo a year or so ago, I feel like we came up with some kind of a manifesto that could work. It would basically involve the client signing off on three things. Firstly, a small fee. Just a token amount of money for your time to show that they're serious and that they value your time. It doesn't have to be much, but giant agencies and companies asking individuals to work for free is shameful.

Secondly, a list of who else was being asked to pitch on the project. The cloak-and-dagger approach to creative work in these scenarios is totally unnecessary. It can be illuminating - flattering even - to know who you're up against, and can inspire better work, I think.

And thirdly, a guarantee that the project will be awarded to someone. One of the larger projects I pitched for this year, it turned out, had not been cleared by the client's legal department. Awesome that they had me spend almost a month, on-and-off, working on my pitch before telling me this.

Not so crazy, right? That's all it needs to be. Nothing more convoluted than a PDF you ask clients to sign before you begin work. The only way these things can work, however, is if everyone gets on board. We're an industry famed for undercutting one another and for jealously guarding our ideas. There's no honour amongst designers it seems. But on this subject I feel that as an industry we could stand together. I'm happy to take the lead on it and draft this thing up. Who's with me?

Words: Craig Ward Illustration: Zaneta Antosik

Craig Ward is a British-born designer and art director currently based in New York. This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 227.