For many agencies, pitching is seen as a necessary evil, that painful, time consuming process required before the 'real work' can start. But agencies and their staff shouldn't be scared of pitches.
With the right approach, pitching can be a fascinating and rewarding process, and not just from a financial perspective.
Clearleft's Richard Rutter spoke to some leading design agencies and combined their thoughts with his experiences at Clearleft to guide you through the pitching process. Here's what he found...
The process normally begins by receiving a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a potential client. The RFP is a project brief, which asks for a proposal document in return. The client selects which agencies it wants to see based on these proposals, so clearly they're important documents to get right.
Often the quality of a proposal will be proportional to the quality of the RFP. On that premise, rather than being the trigger to writing documentation, an RFP should be viewed as the first opportunity to talk to your prospective client.
Finn Taylor, co-founder of Liquid Light, an award-winning web design agency based in Brighton, says he will always try to meet a client before writing a proposal. "I want to have a good informal discussion about their business and let them talk about what they're doing," he explains.
"That way, when my proposal document arrives, it's tailored around thinking about their issues. With an informal discussion, you get to pull apart and challenge the expectations of what they want. This often means that you find a whole bunch of issues they haven't considered, and you end up reinventing their brief based on that discussion. Ultimately you get a much more insightful document that raises solutions to their problems."
Liquid Light co-founder Rob Day goes on to say that this first meeting reduces to 50/50 the need for a formal pitch. "Everything they need to know about you they get from that first meeting." he explains. "If they've had good face-to-face interaction, then they'll think they can work with that person. It generally seals the deal."
But before you go trekking across the countryside to see a prospective client, you need to find out a few key facts. Primarily, you need to ascertain if the pitch is actually real. Sometimes agencies are invited simply to make up numbers, so it's important to work out if the decision has already been made.
See if the contact will engage you in a conversation about the project. If not, that might be a warning sign, both for the reality of the pitch and your future relationship. Next, you need to cover the two fundamentals of delivering projects: timescale and budget.
Sometimes the timescales that clients set are arbitrary and unrealistic. If this is the case, explain how long projects usually take to do properly, and their deadline may change. If, however, the deadline is set in stone you need to be sure you can meet it. Busting deadlines will only lead to stressed staff, an unhappy client and no chance of repeat business or referral.
Discussing budgets at such an early stage can be a touchy subject, but you need to know. There's little point working on projects that won't make any money. If the client won't tell you the budget directly, explain the kind of services you're likely to provide and suggest a ballpark range. If they dismiss you out of hand, you've just saved yourself a whole lot of work and an unnecessary trip. Otherwise, it's time to get down to work.
Do your research
If you're going to spend time writing proposals and pitching, you need to know what you're talking about. This takes time, and preparation counts for everything. So if you're going to take the plunge do it properly, or you might just be wasting your time.
You need to have a sound understanding of the client's business objectives. You need to know what they're looking to achieve, and what they want the user to do. They may be hoping to sell a product or service. But how? What message are they trying to sell to the public? Who are they reaching out to?
Read their website, learn their message and discuss it with your colleagues. Research the client's competitors. And talk to the client – ask them those questions directly. You need to gather enough information and insight in order to develop a strategy and design that will meet and exceed the client's expectations.
How much time should you spend researching? According to Marcus Lillington, from Headscape and the Boagworld podcast, "it depends on the potential size of project, the perceived chance of winning, and how much emphasis is placed on 'creative' thinking as part of the brief. Most potential clients will base their selection on how much effort you've put in and, of course, the quality of your ideas."