Spec Creative is the Devil

Spec Creative is the Devil

Imagine yourself at Subway. You ask them “what is the best sandwich you have?”  Instead of telling you, they make it on the spot. Once it’s made, you say “sorry, that it’s not really what I had in mind”. Then you take the sandwich and leave without paying.

This is a bad example and if you spend some time you can shoot holes all through that but, in a sense, that is spec creative.

As an agency, we are constantly put into competitive bids on projects. A typical project would be to overhaul a brand. Too often, agencies will walk into a pitch like that with an armful of boards with mock-ups of the new logo, business cards, brochure, a few screens of the new website and perhaps a few sample ads. The hopes are that the client will be blown away by the shear effort and sexiness of the new look that everything will pale in comparison to this agency that somehow “gets” them before they’ve even had a chance to meet face to face.

Where this falls down is that, if you are doing things right, execution of a brand is the last step in a long list of steps that will direct you to a path that is right and strategic. By leapfrogging over these steps to get to the design phase is a great way to devalue both you and the client.

Spec creative is the death of strategy

To use a website as an example, here are some of the steps a typical site would follow before a designer would even open photoshop:

  • Brand is defined and boiled down to an insight
  • Existing research is collected (stats, metrics, analytics etc.)
  • New research is collected (polls, surveys, focus groups, interviews etc.)
  • Users are defined
  • Goals for each user are determined
  • Tactics to achieve each goal is discussed
  • Scope of work document is prepared
  • Site architecture is developed
  • Wireframe is developed
  • Content is collected
  • Design

You can probably smell what I’m getting at here. To jump straight to the design phase is negating all the thinking that goes into the design. Which leads me to my next point….

Spec creative is a pretty picture contest

When you take out strategy then all you’re left with is looks and it all comes down what looks better. Thinking and strategy is all that separates us from that student or nephew who is willing to do logos or sites for a free lunch. It’s also highly subjective. What if your client doesn’t like the color blue? What if they don’t like the image you’ve chosen? It’s easy to make things look nice. It’s hard to know if it works.

Spec creative is risky

A lot of time goes into comps. Non-billable time. Not only can you not reuse the work you’ve done for a pitch – there’s always a chance that a client can take some of your designs and pass them along to the winner of the bid. You are also giving the client unnecessary ammunition to find problems. What if they don’t like the fact that you didn’t include a news feed on the home page? It shouldn’t matter at this point but it could because you’ve introduced it.

If not spec then what?

So what should we do? I’m not suggesting going to a pitch with your cap in hand. I’m all for blowing your brains out but instead of spraying designs everywhere in the hopes you get lucky why not invest in your own brand? Work on your presentation.  Find better ways to show off the work you’ve done. Highlight the amazing strategy that goes into great work. In some cases, educate the potential client on how an agency relationship should work. Remember you are setting the groundwork for all work to follow. Do you want to be seen as a thought leader or a production house?

It’s worth saying that some companies will put a budget aside for spec work on a pitch and sometimes the pitch may only be about execution in which case spec work absolutely makes sense.

ZGM has lost and will most likely continue to lose the odd pitch to agencies that are willing to do spec work. Do I mind? Not really. Starting out on the right foot by respecting our craft and the client is key. Anyone can be pretty but I’d rather be known for our brains too.


  1. spindle

    good points. i’ve always found creative spec work to be a waste of time. you have to wonder though, at the base of it all, showing up to a pitch with spec thinking also takes time but in that context, it’s time well spent.

  2. SW

    It would be good if agencies had a sort of general agreement where spec work was banned. I think there should also be some sort of pricing standards so we don’t just cut each other down constantly. Some companies are even operating on losses for many projects. We can be competitive, but we don’t have to be harmful to our own industry.

    1. Peter Bishop

      Agreed. If one group does it then it’s ruined for the rest. Loose pricing standards would be interesting too. What we do seems to border on the “arts” so it’s really all over the map.

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