I understand why clients ask for spec work. They aren’t trying to be unethical. Most just don’t know where to start. Often the request for proposal is drafted by a committee of people unfamiliar with media buying. Spec is just their way of trying to make the perceived intangible abilities of an agency tangible. It’s not always obvious to them that spec can actually hurt their business.
1. It reduces design to an arbitrary “hit or miss” game among competing agencies.
2. The spec client receives really comfortable, safe work. The spec creative process creates an incentive to please you first and your audience second.
3. A spec campaign is typically developed with only the most dangerous input: preconceived notions, biases and personal experience of the team creating the work.
4. It goes against the fundamental principle of design – using a client brief as the basis for translating the message into a visual format. Without the proper consultation and research phases, designers work in a ‘vacuum’. And as we all know, nothing can live in a vacuum.
5. Spec work has hidden costs. Design agencies have overhead. The time spent on spec work cannot be resold to other clients, therefore it’s lost time and capital. Even if the work is picked, the client usually ends up paying more for the project over the life of the process to recoup the costs of developing the original spec work.
6. Spec clients are often left with mediocre work.
7. It hardly ever gets to market. This alone indicates that it’s a false yardstick.
8. It undermines and devalues the professional designer’s education, experience, hard work and more importantly, the entire design industry.
9. Without a proper partnership, designs can be shallow and lack proper long-term strategy that adhere to a marketing plan.
10. Lastly, there are ethical concerns. Nothing stops a client from taking free spec work, handing it over to their nephew and asking them to recreate it “with a few slight modifications”.
One of the best stories I have heard concerning spec work and an agency was when a prospect who owned a world-wide chain of high-end hotels wanted a fellow design colleague to do a complete spec identity for his business, they replied, “Okay. But our team needs to stay in at least three of your hotels in different countries before we decide if we’ll do the spec work. If we like the experience, then we’ll do it. If not, then we’ll pass.” The prospect said, “But we don’t give away nights at our hotels for free.” He then paused and said, “Point taken.”
A professional graphic designer is a business partner, seeing projects from the planning, concept development and budgeting stages, through to production, quality control and the finished product. Spec work does not allow for this collaboration. As creatives, all we have is our ideas. And when we give them away for free, they become a commodity – a devalued one at that.
So hopefully the next time the word spec comes up, you’ll see it as a four letter word.