Spec Ops: The Dark (Or Maybe Not) Art of Spec Creative

Spec Ops: The Dark (Or Maybe Not) Art of Spec Creative

Scam ads.

Bling bait.


Glitter grabbers.


Okay, I just made most of those up, but yes, I’m talking about the most divisive two words in the advertising industry—Spec Creative. Before you dismiss this post as the same old soap-box stand against spec creative, let me get this out of the way: I’m not against spec creative.

I’m not against agencies doing it. I’m not against agencies entering it. I’m not against agencies winning awards for it.

Like most people in our industry, I was ravenously flipping through the Applied Arts Advertising and Interactive Awards Annual last week when I came across not one, but five articles on the topic. As I read through them, I agreed with almost everything that was said. Almost.

Clientless work = bad


Unapproved work = bad


Seeing an opportunity to do great work and taking it = bad

Sorry, what?

What was described as “insidious” in any other industry would be described as good business. Identifying a hole in the market—in our case, a client who’s ads could be working harder for them, or don’t have ads at all—and then filling it with your goods or services—great ideas—isn’t sinister, it’s smart. It’s how agencies and businesses build, expand and progress. And it’s within this exact scenario that we find the salvation of spec work: The point when it is presented to, approved by, and run for, a real paying client, the fake work makes like Pinocchio and becomes real.

Work that receives a client’s blessing is working towards their goals, it’s answering their business needs, and they—the experts in their business—see the validity of the approach. This is the same thinking that goes into any client approval process, and it doesn’t change simply because the work was unsolicited.

As marketing professionals, we are paid for our ability to see what others cannot. We recognize opportunities where others fall back on old stand-bys. The pulse of our industry depends on our ability to innovate and pursue opportunity wherever we can find it—whether it’s asked for or not makes no difference. Car companies make cars. We make ideas. Both are not explicitly demanded, but both are created to meet the needs of a potential market. There’s no reason ideas should be treated any differently than any other product.

If you were the best basketball player in the world, and you refused to take a single jump shot unless it was clearly laid out in a set play, I would say you were doing a disservice to the sport. The same goes for agencies who have the talent to do great work, but limit their scope by sitting back and waiting for clients to come to them in hopes that one day they’ll have a chance to put up a game winner. First, they won’t come. And second, it does a disservice to our industry. There are too many talented people out there to ignore opportunities to help businesses the only way we know how:  great work.

It is our duty to fight against the ugly, the ineffective and the misguided. And certainly, to fight against the missed, the ignored and the unappreciated. These are the reasons we all got into this business to begin with, and these are reasons those who are great at it stay. Opportunity spurs innovation, and without both, agencies and our industry would fall to a complete standstill.


Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

– Arthur Schopenhauer


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