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‘Spec' is a four-letter word

Spec work: work that you do in the hope that the client will choose your idea and pay for it. Agencies and freelancers alike will inevitably face spec work at some point, so the question is: to ‘free' or not to ‘free'?
Spec work can come in several guises:

  1. Pitches and tenders. If a pitch requires anything more than a submission of credentials and indicative pricing, you're looking at spec work. Unpaid creative concepts and rough executions can take hundreds of people hours - a huge cost which may never be recouped. And are your ideas protected? Does the client sign an NDA? Usually not.

  2. Tests. The client can't choose an agency/freelancer on the basis of their credentials, CVs and portfolios so they ask them to jump through a hoop. The sneaky element here is that usually it's a small hoop. Everyone is asked to do it and then the client will pick the one s/he likes best.

  3. Competitions. Creative competitions abound, particularly online, and particularly in design. Protecting the ownership and intellectual property of losing submissions is practically impossible and entrants usually have to sign away all rights to their work, whether they win or not. The prizes are usually ridiculously small compared with the hours of effort that go into the entries. Sometimes shortlisted submissions are put to public/community vote, which at least generates some publicity for the competitors.

  4. Crowdsourcing. Tapping into the expertise of the collective is a great idea in theory - but it's usually only the ‘client' who reaps the rewards, not the contributors. Sometimes prizes are awarded to a ‘winner', as per competitions. Submissions are either secret or published for the world to see (and steal?), depending on the site. This model also trumpets that ‘anyone can be creative' - seriously undermining professional creatives' experience and good design principles.

  5. The blatant unpaid try-out. ‘Let's see what you come up with and if we like it, we'll pay you.' Particularly vulnerable to this one are startup agencies, those who have recently lost big accounts and new freelancers.

You wouldn't go for three different massages and then only pay the therapist who eased your muscles the best, would you? No, you'd do your homework, pick one and then pay for his/her time and expertise. So why aren't agencies and freelancers treated the same way?

Why spec work is bad for everyone involved

1. Intellectual property is very hard to protect

It's not unheard of that unscrupulous clients steal elements of ideas from the losing contestants. Ever heard of blue chip corporates who'd ask seven or eight agencies to pitch for a large project, and then award it to their incumbent agency, who strangely enough would deliver something that looked a lot like one of the losing agencies' ideas…?

Any of the above types of spec work can be exercises in fishing for fresh ideas, which are sometimes then implemented by incumbents - with no compensation awarded to the people who actually came up with them. And if it came to your lawyers versus theirs to enforce the terms of the spec contract (assuming there even was one), who would you put money on?

2. Spec work wastes time

Pitches and tenders can simply be costing exercises, sometimes conducted by procurement departments, not marketing teams at all. It's worth finding out who you're submitting your material to before you create it.

UK-based publication designer Peter Barlow sees any unpaid work as a loss. “Some creatives use spec work and competitions to get new business but in my experience it's only larger firms who can budget for this properly. Time is money.”

Put a competition out there and you'll probably find a great winning concept. But you'd probably have got results that were just as good - if not better - if you'd sourced and worked with a creative who has a good reputation.

Oh - and don't forget the piles of losing submissions you have to wade through. For clients with time on their hands and shallow pockets, this isn't a problem. But for those who submitted losing ideas, that's a lot of wasted time which could have been spent on work for paying clients. (Yes, they chose to participate, I know!)

3. No proper brief = interpretations and assumptions = poor quality results.

I was one of several writers who was contacted recently by a potential new client to do a ‘copy test'. It entailed a complete style and tone rewrite of a simple ‘about us' paragraph. The brief was one line in an email. I didn't know why the client was keen to change the tone so dramatically, whether the visual treatment was also being overhauled and what it was exactly about the funky text that the client liked. I could have taken a stab at it, but without more information, my efforts would have been very hit and miss.

Compromising your reputation as a creative by doing work that's based on shots in the dark does the client - and the industry - a disservice. Spec work often means no or very limited client contact and a generic, unsubstantial and often electronic brief.

4. There's often more to it than meets the eye.

The copy test I was asked to do turned out to entail a lot more than a quick rewrite. Thought and conceptual work was required to come up with a clever angle to match the tone - an angle that would then be carried through the entire project. In other words, what on the surface seemed to be a 30-minute writing job had evolved into a whole creative concept - requiring several hours' work. Something no creative should give away for free.

For a detailed review of spec work and how it is frowned upon by the international creative community, check out or read the American Institute of Graphic Arts' (AGIA) take on it (sample response letters included).

In the second part of this series, I'll take a look at what clients should do if they want ideas from more than one supplier - and what agencies and freelancers should do if they are asked to work on spec.

About Jo Duxbury

Jo Duxbury has been providing a platform for marketers to find over 3800 industry freelancers since she launched her company, Freelancentral, in early 2006. An ex-suit, she also provides freelance writing/editing services to a small number of select clients. She also has a green streak and is involved in a startup recycling company. Follow her on Twitter where she promises not to tweet about what she had for lunch.

Read more: Jo Duxbury, Jo Duxbury



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