My agency does not work for free

I’m writing this note on the day when we had a meeting with a really large entity on the Polish market, a long range mobile UX cooperation with which, would be on of my few professional dreams come true. Right after the meeting, the people with which I was there and I myself, experienced mixed emotions — reason fought with the heart over contradicting, but nevertheless very factual, arguments.

We stick by our own rules which we’ve agreed upon some time ago — said Reason. — But, but… they were really nice, they wanted it in a different way than the ones before — countered the Heart. — No, no, no! This had happened before, when we’ve bent and the result was always the same: big nothing — Reason stuck by it. — Just this one last time — whined the Heart — for Such a Client you have to bend and prepare what they want

With each passing quarter Reason tipped the balance to his side. You have rules? Stick by them! After all, they aren’t stupid. But let’s explain it from the beginning…


mobee dick, a mobile UX agency which I am co-owner, will be 4 years old in the fall of this year. We are a team of strategists, researchers and designers which specialize in designing internet and mobile solutions, having a dote on perfecting the experience of those with a phone in their hands. We believe that already at this stage of the development of our small agency, we’ve managed to achieve quite a lot on the Polish market:

  • we’ve designed solutions for the biggest: Agora, Rainbow Tours,
  • some of our projects received distinctions in trade contests, inter alia Żabka, Warta Mobile,
  • we’ve counseled inter alia. Meritum Bank, PKP, PRESS- SERVICE Media Monitoring, the Ministry of Digital Affairs,
  • we’ve executed research projects for large and significant projects such as Getin Noble Bank,
  • we have proven that mobility is not a fashion but a real need — since the beginning of our activity, as to the astonishment of some companies which “can’t handle it” on the mobile market, we live solely of mobile projects (we realize mainly strategies, researches, tests and design interfaces for RWD sites and mobile apps),
  • we’ve already convinced several dozen companies, that it is worth distinguishing processes of UI design and development (we do not employ, and do not plan to employ mobile app developers, but instead we each time work with external partners and this model works out perfectly),
  • we are constantly one step ahead of the industry, clearing the way for it in new directions (for example we are currently educating in terms of bots, when developers of traditional mobile apps struggle with them — just read the discussion below this post — it’s in Polish, sorry).

We would serviced even larger brands if not for the lame specifics of the tenders, with which we do not agree and in which we sometimes participate. The scenario of that “participation” usually looks like this:

  1. A brief from the client for the agency includes inter alia a request for preparing graphic designs for 2–3 subpages for the project.
  2. Our answer is: “We won’t prepare it, because we do not work that way. What you ask for is unreasonable because…” (I’ll present all of our arguments later in the text).
  3. The client thinks: “Well, how weird! The only ones that said no to us! But well, they have a good portfolio, they are recommended… Let’s invite them for a meeting — let’s see those weirdos up and close. Let them them explain themselves to us f2f.
  4. During the meeting the company tells us “You’re great. Was nice talking to you. You do an outstanding job. But…
  5. The final: “You know — procedures. You haven’t prepared what we’ve requested in the tender. Someone else wins. Someone who scored higher in our corpo-tables, for executing offer requests.

Almost 2 years ago, we’ve decided not to prepare composites and/or graphic designs and/or prototypes free of charge for the sake of participating in tenders and offer contests. And we consistently stick by it. We win with those who can, and want to, bend the rules of such offer processes. Unfortunately we lose with the largest ones — they are unrepentant with their rules.


It’s not like we show an attitude and say “no, because we say so” just defiantly. We have a range of arguments but also many concerns, which we each time present to such clients, and which I’d like to include in this note.

First and foremost:

1. WE DON’T WORK FOR FREE!

Proposal requests asking for free designs come to the agency since I can remember. In the past they were an interesting experiment. I’ve missed the moment when they became a norm for my business colleagues. The business colleagues (from large agencies which I admire on daily basis) call it “building relations with the client”, and say it with such confidence that I can see they truly believe it! I have a much more unmentionable term, which I will save for myself — I try to be polite when speaking in public ;) So I’ll write in a more diplomatic manner, that for me it’s on one hand simply lame and on the other its cockiness — to request such things so straight forward.

In my note I am reffering to Polish market, but apparently this is a bad practice, performed worldwide…

Please answer honestly: you really feel good about it? First of all, I would be ashamed to ask. Secondly, it’s very uncomfortable for me to work that way. Last but not least, I can’t afford to pay my staff out of my own pocket, for the time dedicated to a client who has no intention of paying for it.

Not one similar tender, in which I participated, did leave a positive impression. There is only one exception from this rule. I recall with sentiment the tender for NIVEA Poland from 2008, to which the agency for which I worked back then, managing the sales department, was invited along with 4 other agencies. We were all informed who was our competition. Each of us received a few thousand Polish zlotys for participating in the tender. That money of course did not cover the agency costs required for preparing the offer, but was a symbol that the company was really concerned with the quality of the submitted offers. I have won that tender. If the client cared, so did I. That was the only tender in which I participated and which offered a rejection fee. A glorious exception worth imitating.

The conclusion is simple: if you’re organizing a tender with a request to prepare a rich offer, offer a compensation. Simple as that.

…But how?! I should pay 18 agencies?” He shoots, he scores. If you already know the value of money, you will surely understand how nonsensical are such actions. Too many agencies to pay? Invite less, pay attention to precise selection of agencies which you address. It often takes one talk to see that the agency “won’t deliver”. It’s possible to organize a very factual contest of the maximum of 5 competing agencies.

Tenders in which invited agencies are required to prepare designs for their offers free of charge, are doomed for failure, or at least great risk both from the point of view of the client and the agency. Generally speaking, the client does not appreciate that which he has received for free, and the agency does not care ENOUGH about the project, very often preparing it hasty with significant ignorance, which is what the client actually needs. In result, the client does not receive what he expects. And as easily as he received the projects so does he throw them to the bin. Furthermore in this form, the agency does not have a chance to present itself in a fully professional manner.

Secondly,

2. WE DON’T PLAY GAMES WHICH RULES ARE A MYSTERY.

I’m working my 12th year in a row on the side of agencies (of different kinds: advertising, interactive and now my own UX agency). Such a long experience has given me a number of examples how such tenders quite often end. Including pathological examples, when the client holds a tender not to choose a new partner. It may be a noncommittal attempt at sounding the market. Or a way to gather ideas which then can be executed mostly (or entirely) through other means rather than by the winner (“they’ve given it to us, so now we implement it ourselves or with our current supplier, with a lower cost, as our own” — after all, briefs include notes that “the documentation included as an answer to the request for proposal, becomes the property of the ordering party, free of charge”). Very often tenders do not come to an end, and a winner is not chosen (after all, there is yet another pleasant entry in the brief, stating that the client “reserves the right to cancel offer proceedings without presenting a reason”). Tenders are canceled without a clear reason more often than one would think. Furthermore, inviting a few, or over a dozen agencies (even a couple of dozen — we’ve seen even such clients, who gave it up of course by mistake, for example by addressing their correspondence mistaking the Cc with Bcc :), and then looking over their offers gives absolutely no chance to analyze them in detail and choose the one which is actually the best. The competition therefore, comes down to assessing which picture is “prettier”, which one better fits the chairman’s taste, what from the point of view of the effectiveness of the project, may become a horrible mistake.

Thirdly,

3. WITH SUCH A LEVEL OF IGNORANCE OUR WORK IS SISYPHEAN.

It’s hard to correctly debrief a client during a tender. The larger the request, the more formalized mode of gathering questions from agencies. And a lesser will of the client to engage in a dialogue with the agency. When I’m looking through the clients’ answers to the agencies’ questions, I often come across the terse statement “We do not give out this information at this stage.” and/or “We count on your proposals.” How then one should reasonably start working on the project, in which the assumptions are not presented in greater depth, current performance is not analyzed, restrictions are not stated, the overall strategy is unknown, etc.? Basing only on market research and actions of the competition? But that’s like wandering in the darkness. Then it all really comes down to preparing pretty pictures. With all due respect, all agencies have “pretty pictures” in their portfolios. And it is exactly portfolios and a constructive discussion which should be enough for clients to be sure of the agency’s competences.

Fourthly,

4. WE DON’T START WORKING… BACKWARDS

The client usually asks for a design for the main page/home screen/dashboard and something around 2 subpages. An experienced agency knows that the main page should not be designed first. It’s best to do it after designing all the main user flows in the product, to be sure which of them, and to what degree, should be reflected on the dashboard. It means that a few or even over a dozen designs for subpages should be prepared, before starting work on the dashboard. In order to meet the client’s needs, who thinks it will take the agency a maximum of 2 days, it is needed to essentially work through the entire architecture of information in the product, in order to determine a specific dashboard design. A good design requires a lot more work than laymen may think.

Fifthly,

5. LET’S BE SURE THAT WE ALL UNDERSTAND WHAT ”UX” IS.

Here I reach an issue which deserves it’s own post. If a “UX” agency is invited to the tender, and is asked to prepare a graphic right at the beginning, it means that the client simply understands “UX” as just “prettier pictures”.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs

In a project valued by its users the design should be “invisible”. Flow, intuitiveness of the designed solution and execution time for a given operations all should be assessed in a project, and that can not be done on the basis of two or three images which the client asks for in the tenders.

Besides that, and that is what I should have started with: designing does not start in Photoshop. It does not even start in Axure.

“UI design starts with words.” — Jason Zimdars

We start our cooperation with the client by analyses and workshops, during which we factorize the detailed requirements — those factual, and not only those covered in the brief, perhaps created only for the purpose of the tender. We do not execute such a professional analysis on the level of a tender. It needs to be done when the client actually wants to work with us, because otherwise it is not worth both his and our time. The next step should be… researching the needs of those for whom we design. Because we do not design for the client or for ourselves, but for ordinary people who will use this product on daily basis, right? So where’s the time and place to address them on the level of a tender? Mission impossible.

To sum up…

In mobee dick we approach each project seriously and with total engagement. We really can not stand the feeling of nonsense of the created solutions.

The client should be our partner from the very beginning and not a lover with whom we arrange blind dates and later guess what does he need, what does he like or dislike.

We don’t avoid such tenders. We prepare our offer, but it’s one lacking the requested designs. We present the description of the process to which we invite the client. We zealously explain, what is the process of UX design, what are the next steps and why our holdout is not a whim but common sense.

And though we supposedly have such a superb approach, supposedly we are not the only ones, supposedly many of you are now nodding your heads in approval, but when we participate in yet another tender we hear the magic phrase “but ALL agencies prepared it!

Is there any sense in another plea for change?

In theory, I could plea for two things with this post:

  • Dear agencies, I beg you, get a hold of yourselves already! Respect your time, your staffs and your know-how.
  • Dear corporations, wake up! If talents like us can not go through the wall and lines of procedures (which you yourself admit in secrecy, are not universal and perfect), it means that we’ve reached a glass ceiling in Poland, from which we will eventually bounce off and swim in some other direction (for example to the west:).

Although I am a person of idea and have strong faith in people, I do realize that my post won’t change much. I am not the first nor the last person presenting such an opinion (just read the Zak’s Mroueh statement, published on ZuluAlphaKilo.com).

I remember how 3.5 years ago I’ve heard a very meaningful statement from the managing director of a known and valuable Polish agency:

“Monika, the market is fucked up. You have to adjust if you want to survive on it.”

Nonsense! — I’ve answered then, and repeat the same today. I’m not stepping into that puddle, nor do I intend to do so.

TL;DR

For those who scrolled down:

We are one of the few meaningful agencies on the Polish market, which do not prepare free projects for the sake of tenders.

We would be of course glad if we were not alone in it, standing across from our fellow men on this ocean of helplessness…

That is why, each day question with us the status quo, if deep down in your hearts you feel that the order is not right. Both people from agencies — if you feel you are getting exploited during such tenders, and people from corporations — if deep down inside you feel its unfounded.

Changes are hard. They don’t come easily. There is a need for determination and consistency, which are unfortunately more and more difficult to be found in the world. But it is actually those who are willing, that can more and achieve more. Never let anyone tame down your character, energy and edge.


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