The Four Letter Word Ruining the Industry
The other day I walked into the pharmacy, picked up a deodorant and walked out of the store. I plan to try it, and if I like it, I will go back and pay for it. Most of you are probably thinking that sounds crazy. But that is, in fact, exactly what SPEC (or speculative work) is, and it’s time for agencies to stop doing it and for clients to stop asking for it.
SPEC work is essentially free work created for a prospective client, with the assumption that if said client likes the work, it will hire the agency. Up until a few years ago, SPEC work was a relatively rare request in the branding world, but not anymore. It’s now a regular ask from small companies and fortune 500 clients alike. What’s worse is many agencies continue to do SPEC, which perpetuates the practice and affects the entire industry.
The approach may be different, but the ask is always the same and never works out in either the company or the agency’s favor. To be fair, we truly believe that most potential clients mean well when asking for SPEC; they just don’t understand why what they are asking for isn’t reasonable and won’t actually get them what they want.
In an effort to try and put this practice to bed, we’d like to share the pitfalls of this approach and some better practices to employ instead.
WHY SPEC RARELY WORKS FOR CLIENTS
Truth be told, SPEC work is no good for either party — agency or client. It actually has a very harmful effect on the potential budding relationship. There are myriad reasons why this can be damaging to a collaboration that has barely taken off, and it ultimately does not achieve the client’s desired objectives.
Nobody likes to work for free, and asking someone to do so illustrates a lack of respect. This is a terrible foundation from which to begin any relationship. And when the agency hears “if we like what we see, then we’ll pay you for it” or “we’ll credit you toward the real project if you win it,” that’s just as bad. If you are truly looking for an agency partner, you certainly don’t want one who resents you from the start.
Wrong team. Lack of time.
Typically, design firms are busy, and the studio is packed with valuable (paying) clients with whom we have built mutually respectful relationships. Try throwing some free work into the schedule, for a client who has clearly illustrated a lack of integrity, and it’s highly improbable (or even feasible) that you are going to get the right team or senior-level involvement on your business. Team members know the backstory too, so it is unlikely creatives working on your business are bubbling over with their typical level of enthusiasm if their work is not valued.
Agencies find ways to squeeze this free work into the studio schedule from anyone who’s available — regardless of whether they are the appropriate talent level or background. If it’s the intern who started yesterday, fine. Hey, the UPS guy is here — quick, grab him.
The foundation isn’t laid to create good work.
Think about the briefing process and the homework that goes into any new client/project — retail audits, competitive product reviews, research downloads and speaking to consumers, among other steps. There is a thorough briefing from client to agency, and in many cases, an in-person immersion. There may be client interviews, plant visits and education on brand history. Every project/client is different, but one thing is constant — you want an agency immersed in your brand and doing its due diligence before diving into creative. With SPEC work, all of that is missing. Even if we’re lucky enough to have a phone call describing the project, we can’t possibly have access to the information, anecdotes, nuances, history and everything else required to properly do the job. In that case, it’s nearly impossible to develop on-brand, strategic design that achieves the intended objectives. Too much of the up-front process is missing, and the work suffers.
WHY SPEC RARELY WORKS FOR AGENCIES
At the premise of why SPEC doesn’t work for design agencies is that design is not a commodity, and the work we do warrants a price tag and carries value. We are creative people with talent who have gone to school and trained many years to become experts at our craft, just like any other professional. Beyond that, there are many functional reasons why it doesn’t make sense.
The Carrot Dangle is just that.
Probably the biggest reason why agencies consider SPEC is the promise of work. Inevitably, each ask for free work carries with it the promise of a long-standing potential partnership and a portfolio of brands to be designed by the right partner. It sounds too good to be true, and that’s because it is. Rarely does the agency even get the assignment at hand or have the opportunity to financially recover from the work that went into the SPEC request.
The ask is unrealistic for how agencies work.
“I just need to see a sample of your work, what you can do.” Here’s the problem: That client doesn’t really just want to see a sample of your work. It wants to see on-target, thoughtful work that is right for the brand. If clients wanted to see a sample of your work they could look at your portfolio. From an agency perspective you may think you can just put a few hours into it, throw a couple juniors on it and give them several ideas, but that is never what clients are looking for. They want phase one, for free.
A relationship killer in a relationship business.
Agencies grow and stay alive by building successful long-term relationships. SPEC work gets you off on the wrong foot every time and instantly calls into question two of the biggest relationship killers out there — respect and trust. Even the premise of it speaks to the problem — from the start the client isn’t sure that you are right for it.
And being asked to work for free brings up all kinds of questions for the agency — is this client on the up and up, will it take my work and run, is there really a bigger project up for grabs? It makes it impossible to start building a successful partnership and takes you away from paying clients that you should be cultivating.
A BETTER WAY TO REACH THE END GOAL
We’ve made the case against SPEC work, but some clients still might feel they need more information before deciding or have a project too big to take a risk on an untested firm. In that case, there are several ways to approach the situation that are fair, have integrity and give clients what they need in order to select the right agency partner. Here are a few reasonable alternatives:
Do your due diligence.
Before you hire a landscaper, hair stylist or attorney, you do your homework, right? It may consist of research, checking references, reviewing “portfolios,” multiple meetings/interviews and more. Hiring an agency shouldn’t be much different. We’ll do what it takes to make you feel comfortable, and we’d like to get to know you as much as you’d like to get to know us. So grill us, ask for references, invite us in for credentials presentations, request to meet the project team and come visit us at our offices. Let’s walk through the proposal together; we’ll even exchange ideas. But please don’t ask us to work for free.
There are clients who just need to see some actual creative executed against their brand to feel confident in the agency decision. While personality, culture, fees, approach and many other factors determine whether an agency/client fit is right, sometimes it’s all about the creative and making sure the agency gets the client’s brand. That’s OK, but standard agency rates should apply.
There are a number of instances where we have been one of two firms hired for a project and working in parallel on the initial creative phase. It should be a normal assignment with healthy fees, a typical briefing process and everything else you’d hope and expect. At some point, there’s a tiebreaker (i.e., phase one presentation, focus groups, etc.) that determines which agency continues on to complete the project. Hey, nothing like a little competition to get us bending over backward and going the extra mile, but at least it’s fair and square. May the best design firm win.
While all of these approaches require an outlay of cash, the return is worth it. As a client, you will feel assured in your agency choice, and the agency will feel valued and respected. Together, we’ll start the partnership off on very positive, solid footing from which to grow.
RESPECT. NO SPEC.
It’s our hope that we’ve made a case for why SPEC doesn’t work for any of the parties involved, and we have presented the right steps to take when engaging a design firm.
As a client, if you have used SPEC innocently in the past and in an attempt to answer the right questions, you now have some tools and other methods that will get you the answers you need while building a positive relationship with an agency from the start.
To our agency brethren, stop working for free. Respect yourself and respect this industry. What we do is powerful and valuable, and we deserve to be compensated for that. If we as an industry say this practice is unacceptable, we can stop the habit from continuing.
It all starts with respect.