Winning new work is more crucial for creative studios than ever: here’s how to ensure your pitch to clients hits the spot.


It’s a tough world out there in the design sector – and if you think it’s getting tougher, you’re not alone.

Recent Design Council research revealed that the majority of design agencies (69 per cent) believe competition has increased over the past three years, and nowhere is this competition being felt more keenly than in the scramble to maintain and expand client rosters.

Pitching, it seems, is taking up more time and resources than ever. “The odds have changed,” says Andy Holden, creative director of GraphicoDMG (www.graphicodmg.co.uk) – a full-service agency that employs 80 staff.

“In the current market, the pitching process is longer, and more agencies are involved in each pitch.” The nature of pitching may be changing too, if Holden’s experience is representative.

“One trend we’re seeing increasingly is that we’re getting closer to the final deliverable work in pitches, which means investment is higher as we get further down the line.”

olden points out, though, that much of GraphicoDMG’s pitching work is with clients in an ongoing relationship, “which means a good return on our pitch investment”.

Gauging how much of your precious resources you should dedicate to a pitch is a fine art, and one that agencies have to practice on a case-by-case basis.

At i-am (www.i-amonline.com), all potential clients are judged against three equally weighted criteria, says director Bob Bayman:

“Are we going to make money working with them? Will working for them build our credentials for future work? And will we love working with them? If the answer is ‘Yes’ to all three, we bust a gut to win.”

The amount of work and effort you should put in depends on the project type and scope, says Clare Conway, art director of Red Cow Creative (www.redcowcreative.com).

“Background information and analysis of the pitch documents will determine who should be the key players, and whether the team needs to be extended.

"We tend to work intensively, and structure the content of the pitch and time allocation for each stage before commencing on the creative.”

More than ever, it seems that budgeting is the key concern for agencies when it comes to weighing up whether to pitch. “We angle our pitches so that there’s a stronger focus on return on investment,” says Patricia Howard of Pie Communications (www.piecommunications.co.uk).

“Recession is not a good time to cut back on marketing – which is such a common misconception.”

Now, as much as ever, the most reliable source of work for most designers and agencies is through existing relationships – whether these clients are asking for repeat business, or recommending designers to friends.

A 2006 survey by British Design Innovation found that previous relationships are the key factor for a massive 96 per cent of clients – and this is just as true now, says Conway.

“You’ve already built a solid relationship with them and should have a defined idea of their needs and expectations,” she says.

The client’s-eye view

As the recession bites, private-sector design budgets are slashed, so many studios are now finding themselves pitching for public sector projects, where budgets are more stable. But how to chase this lucrative work?

Keith Lewis, head of marketing and communications at Ealing Council, says existing contacts are as important as in the private sector.

“We’ve never invited anyone in to pitch to us that we’ve not had contact with before,” he says. “We get inundated on a daily basis with enquiries from agencies looking to work with us. I’ll pass on anything that looks interesting to our senior production guy, and we’ll get that agency in for an introductory chat to get a feel for how they work.

“All Ealing Council pitch longlists and shortlists are then drawn from a pool of agencies with whom we’ve either met, or worked with before.”

Meanwhile, canny studios are doing all they can to keep clients happy and cultivate relationships. For example, Pie Communications places great stock in informally building relationships with potential clients, and will never free pitch ‘cold’ to a client.

Pie’s Patricia Howard happily accepts, though, that ultimately winning new business demands some pitching.

“[Pitching] reigns supreme,” says Howard. “Clients love it. They come into the presentation suite with excitement and anticipation, and you’re the entertainment. They love to compare you with the rival agency. All you have to do is be the best.”

‘Being the best’ nearly always means giving clients exactly what they want, but it’s an area that many agencies fall down on in pitch situations.

“The normal process is to invite initial proposals in writing from five or six agencies and get this down to two or three for the pitch,” says Lewis.

“Then it comes down to whether they have grasped the communication challenge we face. Agencies need to be crystal-clear on the benefits of what they’re proposing.”

Know your targets

Lewis points out that marketing and communications departments in big organizations function as internal agencies themselves – in his case, his department’s clients are typically senior council employees, who don’t tend to be the most design- and communications-savvy bunch.

He says: “[External design agencies] need to make it easy for our clients to know what they’re talking about: you can’t come in here and blind them with science. Often, agencies get their branding hats on and start talking a language that causes our clients’ eyes to glaze over.”

With public sector pitching, agencies also need to understand another vital consideration: value for money. Lewis explains: “We’re not cash-rich, so value for money is a key consideration, and I look closely at exactly what resources the agency will be allocating to the campaign.”

Another failing among agencies is a tendency to adopt a one-size-fits-all attitude towards pitches for public-sector work.

“Although increasingly [Ealing Council] is looking at digital media marketing and a multimedia approach to campaigns, we’re not quite where the private sector are with this yet,” says Lewis.

He adds: “[Agencies] have got to do their homework, to understand where a particular local authority or public sector body actually is in terms of the sophistication of its marketing communication activity. All bodies vary, and all have different opinions about what works and what doesn’t.”

The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut much ice in the private sector, either. “I’ve learned that you should always start where the client is and build from there,” says Bob Bayman.

“If pitching to a bank you can use your fashion and fast-moving consumer-goods credentials, but if you’re pitching to a fashion brand, you wouldn’t use your banking experience.”

Clare Conway, meanwhile, says that Red Cow pitches tend to be radically different from the norm.

“The focus might be on a strategic integrated marketing campaign and related PR activities. In this instance demographics, media spend and deliverables are the backbone of the presentation, and are fleshed out by the creative, which almost becomes the window-dressing.

“Other pitches focus on the concept, and in these the translation of the visual is king, as those clients want to be wowed by creativity.”

Ticking the boxes

For all its pitches and projects, GraphicoDMG uses a common framework it calls Project Lifecycle. The system sets out a format that is repeatable, so that GraphicoDMG can guarantee the quality of its work “without limiting creativity”.

“It frees us up to think more creatively, because you know all the detail is taken care of,” says Andy Holden.

“[For pitches] Project Lifecycle’s ‘discover’ phase ensures all the questions that should be asked prior to a pitch are covered, and ensures both the creative and all other departments are working towards the same goal.”

The only factors that remain consistent from pitch to pitch for Bayman are “the obvious questions” – such as “how selection will be judged, who is making the decision, and being sure the budget is there for the fee and the implementation.”

But ultimately, says Ealing Council’s Lewis, the decision on who to appoint nearly always comes down to “a gut feeling” – because “all the agencies who are on the shortlist are there because they’re able to do the job”.

The aim for agencies, then, is to inspire this ‘gut feeling’ as much as they can, a feat achieved mainly through thorough preparation.

Red Cow’s Clare Conway says: “Some clients prefer a more formal approach, while others like a slick yet relaxed presentation. You need to create a balance between on-screen and printed information, and good teamwork and timing are essential. If the delivery of the presentation is shared, each presenter should be able to neatly dovetail the other.”

Bob Bayman recommends that studios “put on a performance rather than a presentation, and get into a conversation, not a monologue”. He adds: “Think of the three most wonderfully insightful things that you want to leave in the minds of the decision-makers, and make at least two of these things sure to make their jobs easier and their business more profitable.

“Also, people buy with the head and the heart, so there needs to be stuff people fall in love with and stuff that makes sense,” he continues.

And with client relationships being human relationships at their core, people skills are also important. “While the creative is the key to success it’s also often about the soft skills, and whether the client feels that there is a connection,” says Andy Holden.

“We all like to do business with people we like.” Standing out from your rivals is an obvious route to pitching success, but how can you achieve this?

“Know your competitors, as this allows you to play up your own strengths,” advises Holden. “And don’t just rely on it being ‘a great idea’ – we always show why it’s a great idea, and back that up with insight and research.”

Crucially, agencies need to show they practice what they preach. “I guess we think it’s good to stand out and ‘stand for’, and this is something we tell our clients about their brands and their customer experiences, so it is important [for us] to do it when pitching too,” says Bayman.

Pitching facts and figures

Research conducted by the Design Council into how design companies win business shows that larger agencies are more successful at winning pitches than smaller ones: studios with more than five employees win 66 per cent of their pitches, while those with fewer than five staff win only 33 per cent (tinyurl.com/npr6ub).

The study also revealed that the accepted way of winning new business involves design businesses pitching for work — regardless of whether design businesses target new clients or clients approach the designer.

Its findings show that success in pitch situations has more to do with scale than experience, with an “association between size and winning pitches”.

The Design Council points out that this may be due to “the fact that the more pitches you win the more you grow, or because larger organizations have more resources available to prepare pitches.” Other findings include:

  • Asked “What helps design businesses win new business?”, 44 per cent of design consultancies think creativity is the most important factor, while 60 per cent state that understanding a client’s needs is ‘very important’.
  • Half of consultancies rely on personal recommendations for winning new business, with five per cent saying they do not target new clients at all.
  • Asked whether respondents feel that competition has increased over the past three years, 69 per cent said it had, while 27 per cent believed it has stayed the same.
  • A total of 31 per cent of designers think free pitching is a fact of life, while 23 per cent think designers should insist on being paid the full cost of preparatory work.
  • Of those who think designers should insist on being paid the full cost of preparatory work, 32 per cent never pitch for free and 48 per cent only do so occasionally

Pitch to win - dos and don'ts

  • Get the basics right: treat the pitch as a job interview. This means dressing smartly, arriving on time and with all your materials in order, and keeping your body language relaxed, open and friendly.
  • Practice makes perfect: run through your pitch, preferably with an audience comprising both designers and non-creatives. Gather comments and feedback, refine it, and practice it again. And again.
  • Put yourself in their shoes: try to view your pitch from the client’s point of view. Do they often commission design work, or are they new to the whole process? Write down a list of needs or questions this particular client might have. Does your presentation answer these?
  • Set yourself apart: what is it that makes your studio suitable for this particular job? Is it past experience, your attitude or even the out-of-office interests of one of your staff? Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to shout about it.

A brush with success

When the world’s oldest brush-maker, Kent Brushes (www.kentbrushes.com), needed to refresh its brand and relaunch its website, it looked for a small design agency that could offer a personal touch, and ended up choosing Leeds-based BlackOrange (www.blackorange.co.uk).

The key to BlackOrange’s winning pitch was preparation and an understanding of what Kent Brushes needed, says Ben Cosby, creative director of Kent Brushes.

“We were impressed that they knew we were in need of a rebrand by the time we had our first meeting with them. We’d acquired many logos and styles over literally hundreds of years, and we wanted to project a cutting-edge, fashion-led persona while, retaining our long-established traditional heritage.

“It was a tricky task, but one BlackOrange completely mastered,” Cosby says. “Their vision was a new identity as part of a site redesign.”

BlackOrange technical director Mark Bennett says that for pitches, it is the company’s practice to go in offering tailored design solutions.

“But they might not always be the solutions that the company expects,” reveals Bennett. “This is because some companies don’t have a completely clear understanding of the best way to communicate with their audience.”

He adds that in pitch situations, having something concrete to go in with also means, “you don’t sit there having a theoretical discussion about menus or navigation”.

Bennett says BlackOrange’s pitch-conversion rate is helped by word-of-mouth referrals. “I’d rather not say specifically what we commit to pitches in terms of resources, but I can say it does depend on what we feel we’ll potentially get out of a pitch,” he explains.

“We don’t advertise – all our business comes through word of mouth. We’d been recommended to Kent Brushes before we pitched for their business.

“This allows you to dedicate more resources to pitches, because there is already a connection with that company, which gives you a greater chance of winning the pitch than if you’re going in there cold.”





GraphicoDMG’s pitch to Pepsi for a viral, aimed to demonstrate how Pepsi Max “gives you a kick in the right direction.” The team presented a storyboard which was made into the viral with very few big changes. The film had 40 million views, and in one month the campaign drove more than 400,000 new visitors to the Pepsi website and mobile site.



Think 468 was a brand identity created by Red Cow Creative for a redesigned office space in Helsinki. The client was JP Morgan. “We initially presented four different concept,” says Clare Conway. “The chosen identity was developed to include brand guidelines, signage, hoardings, website and a duallanguage brochure.”



GraphicoDMG’s pitch for the STA Travel website aimed to bring consumers “closer to their holiday experience”. Andy Holden says: “We did this by making the imagery the hero of the site and so putting the experience upfront and emotionally engaging. The pitch idea stretched the possibilities and emphasized the idea.”



A sample of BlackOrange’s revamped publicity for Kent Brushes.Above, BlackOrange’s redesigned logo and identity for Kent Brushes, which is clear and bold on both dark and light backgrounds. Below, One of Kent’s former logos, from which BlackOrange kept the crest and tagline.



Image Ollie Munden (www.megamunden.com)