April 20, 2009

Spec Work: Yes or No?

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One day when I was managing an agency near Cleveland, an RFP came in from Moen, a major manufacturer of bath and kitchen plumbing fixtures. We had a can’t-miss shot because we had a “mole” on the inside – a next door neighbor of one of our people not only worked at Moen, he was on the selection team.

The Moen boys were obsessive about the process – lots of Dos and Don’ts. One stood out: no speculative creative work of any sort will be permitted. Our inside guy said if anyone showed creative they’d be immediately disqualified.

On the final presentation day – one of those God-awful things where the 3 finalist agencies sat together in a crowded lobby near enough to the conference room to hear occasional laughter – our turn came and we flawlessly presented strategies and plans. But no creative.

Next day I got an awkward call with the news they’d chosen someone else. Damnit, we were wired – what did we miss?

The mole later admitted that in their presentation the winning agency whipped out spec creative and the business unit GM thought it was the coolest stuff he’d ever seen. He made a unilateral decision to ignore the rules because “they were the most creative.”

It scarred me for life. Ever since I’ve been generally in favor of presenting spec work.

Yes, when you do spec you risk being off the mark, misunderstanding product attributes, blundering into forbidden areas, or using a color the CEO’s wife doesn’t like. Some say you sully your most valuable asset by giving it away free (this always seems to have more to do with ego than money).

But friends, it’s worth it.

Sure, if it’s obvious someone wants to see creative just to harvest free ideas, of course don’t do it. A Memo of Understanding about how you the agency will proceed during the selection process, including who retains ownership of ideas, is not unusual and may save your bacon. Some prospects will pay you a pittance – never enough – just to ease their conscience. Make sure you keep the usage rights.

Clients love seeing their name in lights, right? Slap their logo prominently on binders, in PowerPoint, on boards, and on anything spec larger than you’d ever intend to use it.

And you can’t feature too many shots of their product. These are their children, their grandkids, their livelihood and seeing them in new ways blown up and comped (always show print ads at least twice actual size) is cheap flattery that works almost every time.

Prostitution, you say? I don’t know – you’ll have to decide.

After the Moen experience I never hesitated to include spec on every subsequent pitch including when it was forbidden. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. . . but we were never tossed out because of it.

I say the more spec the merrier as long as your strategy and planning is stout. You’ll showcase your talents (“Creative wins accounts and Account Service keeps ‘em”) and give them some juicy stuff to talk about. Leave the spec work behind after the pitch, if you can.

Never forget the mission: win a new account to keep and grow. Smart agencies find plenty of ways to recover acquisition costs later.

Spec is the sizzle; when you win the account you can start billing for the whole steak.

Your 2 Cents?

How do you handle spec work at your agency? Have you ever broken the rules pitching an account? Share your stories in the Comments section below.



  1. Big fan of spec work, but we walk a fine line. In the plus column, it solidifies that we can back our strategy up with creative, smart ideas. As long as we post up front that the strategy is also spec (if we don’t receive a buttoned-up assignment). We’re out to win the business and we need to prove that we can handle both the strategy and creative rather than just promise we can. Can’t go into every pitch “afraid” that we might not win or we’re giving something away. We also copyright our work shown in the pitch as well as the leave-behind material. Have won some major pieces of business this way. In the negative column, are we decreasing the value of what we do by sharing creative in a pitch? We try to set up an entire campaign but only spec out some of the ideas that indicates where the ideas could lead, but we don’t give everything away. It’s a balancing act. We ask a ton of questions up front.

    Comment by Donna Forbes — April 20, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  2. Prospective clients lie. We’ve had prospects refuse to meet with us to define/clarify their needs, then give one of the competing agencies a meeting because the pushed ten times instead of the two or three we shot at them. Even then, they didn’t give us (or the third agency) equal time. Naturally the agency that go the meeting also got the account. Some satisfaction: the marketing manager got fired within the year.

    Comment by Perry Ballard — April 20, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  3. We do not do spec work, nor do we “pitch” clients. When asked to participate in agency selection, we go to the meeting with nothing but a notepad to take notes on what the client needs. We don’t show what we’ve done for other clients. If they’ve done their homework, the client has already visited our online portfolio. If they specifically ask to see creative we’ve done in their market, we’ll bring that. If they ask us to do spec work, we tell the client that good creative requires research and thought, otherwise it risks being off-target. If we’re going to do some work for free, we do it for ourselves–work on our own website, blogging, taking a class.

    Comment by Kirsti Scott — May 5, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

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