The Catch-22 of Spec Work

One of the first decisions I made as an independent designer was to create a policy not to do “spec work.”  We’ve been pretty successful at honoring the policy, although there are a few cases where we felt we had to do it to remain competitive.

Spec work is work that is requested by a potential client with no guarantee that you will get the job and be paid for the work. Some designers see it as a way to get new business and write off the effort involved as a sales expense; others do it because they are desperate for work and see it as a way to get their foot in the door of a lucrative client. Some clients have come to expect spec work as part of the process of choosing an agency, so in certain cases, it seems like it’s just the cost of doing business.

I’d like to spend a minute articulating why we have a policy against it, and then explain why it’s a bad idea for companies to request spec work from potential designers and marketing partners.

Why we avoid spec work:

  1. It takes time and effort away from other, paying clients: since spec work is always a gamble, what you end up risking is either quality or timeliness of your other work. For me, it’s always better to improve those attributes with an existing client, than to sacrifice them for a potential client. If we deliver better, faster work to our paying clients, we are likely to get more projects from them.

  2. It starts a relationship off on the wrong foot: It’s a psychological truth that people value things more when they pay for them, and designers always produce better work when they know they are being paid. We’ve always striven to be an essential, trusted partner with our clients, and that’s difficult to do when we don’t feel like they trust us enough to give us a project based on our experience and reputation. Even if we do end up with the project, and ultimately get paid for the spec work, there is a sour feeling of being abused that is difficult to erase.

  3. There are too many gray areas: generally spec work is done without a contract in place. This creates some ambiguity about who owns the work, what you will be paid if your work is chosen, and what recourse you have if the client uses your work without paying you. All these issues can be ironed out, but it can be a hassle, and for us, not worth it for the potential of payment.

  4. It starts a vicious cycle: The more spec work you do, the more it is expected of you — and worse, the more you expect it to be part of the process. Time, energy and creative concepts are finite resources, and we feel it’s best to devote them to projects for clients who respect and value those resources.

As you can see, it doesn’t make sense for us to do spec work, but I also feel it doesn’t make sense for companies to request spec work from potential designers.

  1. It’s the illusion of choice: Most companies I know who request spec work do it to have a variety of agencies and concepts to choose from. They ask 3 or 4 firms to present their ideas for a campaign and sit back while those companies work for free to create their concepts. This method will not produce the best work from their candidates (see #2 above), and it will dilute the creative process as the client must divide their time and give creative direction to 4 different groups. The ultimate result is 3 or 4 mediocre concepts to choose from.

  2. It’s exclusionary: The truth is that there are many firms (like us) who make a point to not do spec work. If you require it for your project, you will unnecessarily exclude some potential candidates. In fact, you will be most likely excluding the best candidates, as those who don’t do spec work feel their portfolio and reputation is strong enough already, and likely are not desperate for work (and thus have plenty of work from their highly satisfied client base).

  3. It’s insulting: Although clients may not intend it this way, at the core of a request for spec work is a kind of disrespect. It devalues and commoditizes creative services. We feel that our time, creative thought and past experience has value, and if we give that away without an agreement for compensation, we are essentially devaluing our own work. This will not lead to the best end result.

To break out of the cycle of requesting spec work, I recommend clients do a couple of things to gain comfort that they are choosing the right creative services firm — request additional portfolio samples that are similar to the type of work requested, talk to current and past clients and prepare a thorough creative brief. These simple steps will produce much better results than sifting through a pile of spec work that was created quickly and without compensation.

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