The Danger in Requesting Spec Work

November 6, 2018

A married couple, self-proclaimed foodies, are out on a rare date-night and excited to try a new top-rated restaurant on Yelp. After enjoying several sips of their favorite cocktail, the waiter approaches the table and asks if they are ready to order dinner. The husband remarks that the main course options look very intriguing and that he’d like to try some of the prime rib and the lobster before committing. The waiter responds with a puzzled look and asks for clarification. The man acknowledges that the restaurant is well-rated and has a great website, but he insists on a free sampling of the food before ordering. "I want you to prove to me that you understand my palate and can deliver a meal worthy of your reviews specific to my tastes." One can only imagine how the chef reacted when the waiter delivered the unreasonable request to the kitchen. It is hard to fathom this scenario actually happening in a restaurant but is unfortunately too common in our industry.

Speculative work, commonly referred to as “spec”, is defined by W|W as work completed by an agency before it has been contractually engaged and equitably compensated by a client. Some agencies will do spec work in the hopes of eventually getting hired and paid. While we support competitive vetting and encourage businesses to meet with prospective agencies before hiring them, for a number of reasons W|W does not participate in processes that require or knowingly accept spec work.

It is easy to understand why companies might develop an agency review process that includes spec work. For decades, the operating assumption in the advertising world is that ad agencies would develop elaborate creative pitches (spec) to land major clients. The payoff in this situation was the very lucrative commission connected to advertisements placed in various media. Those familiar with the ad agency glory days as represented in AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men know exactly what I mean. For some reason, this practice of requesting spec work reared its ugly head in the design world with prospective clients expecting to see mock-ups of their website home page or new logo before hiring an agency. I get it, who wouldn’t want to take their branding agency for a creative test drive before hiring them? But, providing free work, regardless of comps or ideas, violates the ethical framework that guides the design industry.

In my 15+ years working in this business, W|W has declined dozens of RFP processes that required or hinted at spec work. When possible, we tracked these opportunities to see who participated and the project outcome, and time-after-time we’ve witnessed an underwhelming creative implementation that doesn’t move the needle or endure.

When one considers their world of seasoned experts, such as attorneys or surgeons, we don’t expect them to give away their services for free before they are hired. As we implicitly trust our fate with these individuals, why is it a different paradigm for design and creative professionals?  (Hint: There’s not a good reason.)

So, what are the dangers of requesting spec work?

Design in a vacuum.

Without fail, requests for spec work are almost always accompanied by a lack of access to project stakeholders, existing research and other relevant background information. When design/branding agencies aren’t able to dig into an organization’s pain points and to achieve clarity on what the target audiences want and need, any creative concept that emerges from a spec process was developed in a vacuum.

The shiny penny.

It’s easy to get teased by spec. When a client’s decision-making committee reviews a proposal with a pretty spec design, that bid gets their vote every time.  Brand-savvy marketers understand that this is a flawed approach and aren’t wooed by spec eye candy.

Legal woes.

Free work without a contractual framework can also introduce legal liabilities connected to intellectual property and trademark. Alternatively, when you enter an agreement with a design agency and fairly compensate them for the value of the work they are delivering, you should have clarity and peace-of-mind about the ownership rights being transferred to you.

Limiting interest.

Well-heeled design studios and brand agencies won’t participate in opportunities where spec work is requested. That means if you want to hire the true experts, asking for spec will ensure that won’t happen.

Distracted agencies working on your project.

Recognizing what types of agencies participate in spec work and understanding how they will be approaching your unique challenge is critical. Imagine if the firm you hired for your mission-critical rebrand is routinely producing spec work. When their top talent is supposed to be focused on solving your problems, are they instead distracted by spec work deadlines? An agency focused on creating spec work to win the next job means less time solving an actual client's problem with a smart, creative strategy. Believe it or not, spec work is occasionally produced for the sole purpose of indulging an agency's ego to win industry awards, not produced to implement a winning strategy for the client.

So, how can you find the right designer or branding agency? Look at their portfolio of work to see if it resonates with you. Meet with them to understand their company culture and see if there’s positive chemistry. Ask about their process and approach to solving the type of problem you are navigating. Be transparent about your anticipated needs, budget parameters and timeline. Talk to some of their previous clients. In other words, conduct the same type of homework you’d do before hiring an expert like an attorney or surgeon. Or, ask for spec at your own risk…