Should you ask for creative work as part of a pitch?

At the risk of breaking Betteridge’s law, the answer to the question in the title isn’t quite “no”, but it isn’t far off…

Trevor Klein shared this tweet with me recently, and, basically, HELL YES:

I got a bit excited:

I’d like to expand on this a bit, and reboost the signal outside of the advertising world, because I think this is a really very important point. I’ve seen this get ignored too often within both broadcast and cultural sector work, in particular. I’ll also provide an example of what you can do instead that I hope may be useful.

BUT… I wanna see the ideas  

So, the idea that we should ask for a creative pitch for creative projects seems logical at first. It is also extremely prevalent; so ingrained in fact that even when I’ve asked specifically for NO creative as part of a pitch, companies often can’t help themselves.

BUT there are several reasons why this is usually a bad idea, and one I heavily discourage when advising clients on briefs and tenders. This is some hard-won personal experience here, folks.

Let’s start with some of the points mentioned by @tomroach in their tweet.

Insufficient time, understanding, access, client input

The first part of a creative project should be a discovery process between the client and the agency. This is often several days long and involves joint meetings, brainstorms, audience research gathering, idea testing, collaboration etc etc.  This is what it takes to come up with an idea/product that might actually be a good starting point (and still just a starting point). Why would you expect agencies to come up with something worthwhile without going through that whole, involved, collaborative process?

As Tom says above, they are therefore not a means of coming up with correct creative solutions.

Creative solutions often immediately appealing, rarely correct

Creative pitches are, however, quite seductive. This is dangerous on two fronts:

a) the client (and agency) gets attached to the idea presented at the pitch and then fails to allow a properly executed discovery process to deliver something much better. It is especially important to factor in user research at this stage and genuinely tailor the product to people’s needs and behaviours. For this to happen you need to be fully open to all potential solutions at the start (within your means, of course). I’ve seen the opposite happen several times, though, where the creative idea at pitch dictates the direction of the discovery process, and the end product doesn’t really meet user needs as a result.

b) the idea blinds the client to shortcomings in the rest of pitch. They are so excited by the idea that they fail to fully question the track record of the agency, their processes, or the proposed budget. All of which are actually far more important. Which brings me to…

Creative credentials should be evident from track record

Just because someone has a good idea, doesn’t mean they can deliver it. The only way you can be sure that they can is to look at their track record (as well as, I would add, their project management processes, proposed approach and budget). Even a new company should be able to provide you with the individual track records of those involved.

If they have none, be aware, you are taking a major risk and you should spend considerable time discussing their proposed processes (especially project management, user testing), technical knowledge and risk mitigation to attempt to offset this. If you don’t have sufficient relevant experience and resources in-house to effectively mentor an agency in this type of situation, go with an agency who is very experienced instead.

And to add a further point:

It isn’t ethical to ask companies to do lots of work on spec

Especially small agencies. You are asking them to do thousands of pounds of (pointless) work for you for free, and in a competitive climate, companies will, but that doesn’t make it OK. Agencies go bust because of this, seriously, and that benefits none of us.

Any exceptions?

Maybe you’re doing something that you feel is quite new, or you’re asking agencies to break out of their comfort zone a bit and show what else they can do. If so, consider taking more time to brainstorm ideas in a workshop together, which will also give you time to see how compatible you are. But still don’t get attached to these initial ideas, see above. Be prepared to entirely throw them out when you start the proper process.

You could also pay a company who seems promising and creative to go through a more involved discovery process. I’ve actually seen this done with several companies at once, which I think worked well. It’s also, I think, completely fine to separate discovery and delivery if you want to manage risk – committing only to a week or two’s work initially – and potentially use a different company for delivery.

And (evergreen statement), if you haven’t got budget for any of this, consider whether you are really able to deliver anything worthwhile on this scale, and maybe adjust expectations accordingly. Squeezed budgets rarely result in useful or usable solutions.

What should I do instead?

Writing a good brief is a subject for another day, to be honest. But, here is a (redacted/edited) outline from a recent brief I wrote that may be useful. After outlining our objectives, requirements and parameters, we asked for proposals to include the following:

  • Scope of the proposal (including risks + dependencies). Responses should not focus on creative responses, but should instead outline an approach to delivering the specified outcomes.  This should address [specific issues related to this product].
  • Suggested timelines and a draft budget. [Or you could just say the budget that you are working to and ask for their day rates]
  • Examples of previous relevant work. Ideally this should demonstrate experience working with [list of features of this project that we would like to the chosen vendor to have experience in].
  • Brief CVs/outlines of relevant experience for the team members who would be working on this.
  • Any changes or variance from the requirements laid out in the brief

Any other thoughts? Counter examples? Feel free to share them in the comments.

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