To Spec Or Not To Spec

I was invited recently to participate in a big pitch for a well know snack food company with one of the agencies I partner with. Part of the RFP (or “Request For Proposal” for those of you not familiar with industry lingo) was to create several pieces of spec work (non-lingo crowd: spec= free). What was interesting is they not only wanted to see our idea of a creative direction, but they wanted to see how it would flush out in four different executions both in print and on the web.

Now, truth be told, no legit agency is going to show just one direction. If you are smart and savvy, you show a range of at least three directions. The conservative approach, the far out (they’re never gonna go for this) approach and one middle-grounder that you’d be thrilled if they picked.

So that’s what our team produced. Three distinctly different campaigns, each with the variety of executions the client asked to see. In addition to our time and efforts putting this all together, a team of four of us flew up to Portland to present the work in person. Can you hear the adding machine heating up?

That is an enormous amount of time and resources spent by my agency partner. Especially when you hear that they didn’t get the job. Apparently there were six agencies “trying out” and our group came in #2. (but hey, we try harder, right?)

Now, I was involved in a lot of pitches and the occasional spec work that went along with it in the early 2000’s when the entire ad & design world tanked following the implosion of the dot-coms in the Bay Area. Agencies were desperate for work and companies knew it. They could afford to abuse their “sample privileges” (thanks LD). But even when times are tough, I just don’t think that giving away free work and ideas is ethical.

What other industry do you know of where you can roll in and demand to try something out for free? Imagine going to the hairdresser (OK, I can’t imagine that, but you can try…) and asking for a color and cut and if you like the way it turns out, great, if not, you’re not going to pay. Or how about dining at the newest and hottest restaurant in town where you sample a bunch of items on the menu, and if you love what you tasted, you’ll pay the tab and if you don’t… sorry, you’re out of there. It just doesn’t work like that anywhere else.

So why is that OK and justified in our industry? I would like to make a public plea to my fellow colleagues, stop allowing the practice of spec work. If a potential client wants to see what we can do, simply direct them to your portfolio or show them a case study. Let’s put our collective foot down. No more spec. No more free ideas! Are you with me?

Posted by: TAWD on September 1, 2009

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