“Spec” Surgery? Not on Your Life.

by Rick Chiorando

There isn't much out there that surprises me anymore, but in this crazy business of ours, doing speculative creative still gets my underwear in a knot.

Would you ever hire a painter to paint your entire house without paying them something up front? Or ask a plastic surgeon to give you the works - fix your crooked nose, lift your eyes, maybe a collagen injection or two - but only reach for the AmEx if you're thrilled with what you see in the mirror when he's done? And if you don't like it, ask him to start over again in an attempt to win your future business?

I assume not (but I've been wrong before). So why is it so easy for potential clients to ask for free creative?

Our brainpower and creativity is our livelihood. It's what makes an ad agency an ad agency. It's our primary asset and it pisses me off when people expect us to give it away for free.

There are so many agencies out there just waiting for the phone to ring; they would give away their firstborn to have a chance at a piece of new business. And all I want to say to them is "BE PROFESSIONAL." Stop giving away the store: it cheapens your product. But until every agency says NO to spec creative, it will never end and potential clients will keep asking.

To the advertisers out there that love to kick the tires, put people in motion and get that free creative, I'd suggest that you can still get a good idea of what an agency can do for you in a few simple steps - without asking for spec creative:

  1. Review their portfolios. You contacted a specific agency because of its people or body of work. Chances are if they did killer creative once, they can do it again - for you.
  2. Invite them in for a chemistry check. Or better yet, check out their facility and make sure they aren't working out of their basement.
  3. Check their references. Yes, everyone talks a great game, but ask their clients. How long have you worked together, and have you seen sustained growth? Chances are if they've done it for them, they can do it for you (sound familiar?).
  4. Have faith. You have to believe in yourself and your ability to make the right decision, much like when you get married. I know there are still a few die-hards who believe "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" but you know where I'm going with this!

So here I sit, pondering a realistic solution for this problem, and come to the conclusion that I may have to get used to that underwear in a knot feeling. Unless someone out there in advertising land has a suggestion . . . (I'm all ears). In the meantime, anyone know a good plastic surgeon who'll work on "spec?"

Rick ChiorandoRick Chiorando, Partner and Chief Creative Officer at Long Island advertising agency Austin & Williams, combines results-driven talent with an uncanny ability to combine "big idea" creative with multifaceted, multilevel strategic execution. To read more about Rick, visit his bio section on the A&W web site.

Comments – 4 responses to ““Spec” Surgery? Not on Your Life.”

  1. Pete Says:

    Spec work is an interesting topic. I've followed this argument in the design world, but I didn't realize it was big in advertising too.

    Coming from the opposite angle, how do you feel about creatives who are trying to get jobs at agencies? My background's in film, where you have to have spec work to show what you can do. So even if a producer doesn't like my script, they can say (hopefully), "well, at least I know he can write, let's see what he'll do with a different project."

    Like the graphic design debate, I think spec work is helpful for those trying to make a name for themselves. Established designers don't need to work on spec because they've got the portfolio and clients that agencies/businesses are looking for.

    And chances are, businesses paying low rates for spec work probably weren't going to spend for better quality work anyways; you get what you pay for. So it's not like the agency's missing out because of it.

    What's your opinion for those of us starting out?

  2. Rick Says:
    Hi Pete,

    Spec work to progress one's career is perfectly fine... in this upside down economy, you have to be different in getting recognized and landing a job.

    My bitch is more with a potential client "requiring" free creative for an "opportunity" to win their business. It's such a waste of time and at the end of the day a band aid on solving a marketing problem.

    How do you do spec work without a detailed history of what was done previously?... the media used, research, a discovery with the stake holders... all we're doing without this insight is creating a pretty picture without any strategic foundation... and more than likely, that interim creative will change once an agency is selected, so that means you get to do it twice, but get paid once... it's just not fair and totally unproductive.

    My suggestion to you is to do something cool that's different, that gets noticed in a good way, break away from the masses, and as an Agency owner, that would make me take notice. That would start the conversation.

    Have a great Holiday and enjoy your bird!
  3. Pete Says:

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Are you seeing more businesses ask for spec work since the economy's gone down, or has this been a widespread problem for a long time?

    And do you see any patterns in the types of businesses who are asking for it? I'd imagine it's harder to sustain a relationship with those places than with companies who know what to expect.
  4. Rick Says:

    This has been a constant problem for a long time... I'm sure the state of the economy has added to it, but we haven't seen a spike in requests, it's been at the same tolerance level of the past several years.

    It's all over the map... just recently a Plastic Surgeon group (name to be withheld) asked us for naming options, logos based on said names, a tag line, an ad campaign (or two if we so choose) a home page design and corporate ID... for Free!

    We thought about this for about 5 seconds before we respectfully declined...

    You see my point???? The only thing that gives them the right to ask is because some Agency out there will roll over for them, and until there is a unanimous NO... it will never go away.

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