It’s Time to End the Era of Spec Work 

Speculative work has long been a part of the ad agency business. It’s been given a special name in our industry – “the pitch.” And it’s even been glorified on shows like Mad Men.

Remember Don Draper pitching Kodak with his legendary carousel concept? It’s an incredible scene, one that’s easy to get swept away in. And I think that romance is part of what has kept spec work alive – “acceptable” – these many decades later.

But don’t forget: Mad Men is also set in a time when women were supposed to stay home or work as a secretary. If like Peggy Olson, they broke through to a career level like a copywriter, you can be sure they were paid far below market rate. The chances of breaking through were even slimmer if you were a non-white woman.

Thankfully, times have changed in many ways. Corporations tout their active efforts to close wage gaps, open opportunities for diverse groups, and ensure that their teams are treated fairly. 

Why is creative spec work still deemed an acceptable practice by these same organizations that embrace DEI? Perhaps it’s because they don’t realize the deep negative impact of that request – they don’t understand that spec work is unethical. Perhaps it’s because agencies are afraid that if they turn it down, they will lose business. (They will.) Whatever the reasons, it’s time to end the era of spec work.

What Is Spec Work, Really?

Spec work, short for speculative work, is creative work that is requested without a contract. With no written agreement. No guarantee of use. No protections for the creator. And — wait for it — no promise of payment. For all of these reasons, spec work has no place in the professional world. Asking trained professionals to submit their work without a contract is unethical.

I mean, can you imagine asking a carpenter to frame out a house for free – to see if you like it and want to move forward with a building contract? That carpenter would have to invest time and money – all the while losing that time to make money working for someone else. It’s no different when ad agencies are asked to provide their services free of charge…for the chance to compete against other agencies who are also being asked to work for free.

When it comes to spec work, everybody loses. Part of a client/creative relationship is just that, a relationship. The back and forth that happens over revisions, ideas, and brainstorming is what leads to the best end product for the client. This doesn’t happen overnight and certainly doesn’t happen when exploration and discovery conversations about direction are taken off the table.

The business world has made enormous gains in terms of respect. It’s time to extend that respect to creative agencies. 

The Negative Impact of Spec Work

The practice of spec work brings with it many more negative consequences than may be readily apparent. (Not just for the agencies.) Here are a few ways spec work results in a negative impact for brands and agencies:

  • Spec Work Disproportionately Affects Small Businesses
    A recent study shows the average pitch cost is $45,000 – and going beyond the financial impact, the average pitch takes 175 hours of agency time. Think of the impact this has on a small business in terms of profit erosion and people stress. Unlike big agencies whose enormous profits allow for entire pitch teams, small agencies must pull people working on paying client business to add the pitch to their already busy workloads. Yes, occasionally a small agency will prevail over the large competitor despite comparatively diminished resources – we have – but the majority of the time the work gets awarded to the behemoth who dazzled with expensive efforts.
  • Spec Work Disproportionately Affects Diverse-Owned Businesses
    According to Clutch, an independent B2B review platform, 2 out of 3 small businesses are run by underrepresented groups! And per the SBA, 99% of minority-owned businesses are small businesses. When large corporations embrace the trend of “inviting a diverse-owned business to participate” in a spec-driven RFP, they are likely inviting a small business. We woman-owned businesses, Hispanic-owned businesses, African American-owned businesses, LGBTQ-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, disabled-owned businesses, and other diverse-owned businesses want a seat at the table. We deserve a seat at the table. That seat shouldn’t come with an unfair expense to our businesses.
  • Spec Work Wastes Everybody’s Time
    The word “partnership” graces untold numbers of corporate core values, walls, and RFPs (describing what is desired in potential vendors). How can an ad agency be a true partner by providing spec work? The best creative work does, indeed, come from partnership: the client knows their brand, the agency knows their industry, and together they can reach new heights. Skipping this step means the agency is not informed to do the very best work possible – and the client makes a choice based on reviewing work that could have been better. (Ever wonder why clients often end up asking the winning agency to go back to the drawing board? That’s why.) Does that sound like a great partnership on either side?

The Cost of Spec Work

I know I said that spec work is free work. Of course, nothing is really free. When an agency agrees to do spec work for prospective clients, it’s the existing clients who pay the cost. Eating into the agency’s profits takes away from other potential agency investments: from training opportunities to staff additions to heartier benefits to compete to help retain employees. Disrupting the workflow and stretching employee bandwidth also detracts from the team’s ability to provide the very best work to their existing customers. 

Keep this in mind: when brands require agencies to provide spec work, they are asking them to take away from employees and current clients. If you become one of those clients, the agency’s attention will be taken away from your business with future RFPs.

How Can Companies Engage in Ethical Agency Searches?

It’s time for both sides to effect change. In the spirit of partnership. In the spirit of ethical business. In the spirit of respect. Now that you know the unhealthy cycle that spec work perpetuates, I hope that you will commit to a spec-free future!

When companies launch a new agency search, it can have an enormous impact on the brand’s future. (That’s the hope, right?) Here’s how to engage in that process without spec:

  1. Really Vet the Agencies: You can tell a lot more about an agency by the work it has done as a result of client partnerships than by a pitch. Determine what you are looking for, then seek out agencies who have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to do what you seek for other brands. Dig into the work samples and case histories. If you like what you see, have a meaningful screening conversation or two. If you like what you hear, ask for references and check them out. And don’t forget the many additional tools available today: Glassdoor reviews (are the employees happy?), Google reviews (what have clients said?), LinkedIn connections (who do you know who knows someone at the agency?). There’s a lot of legwork you can do to determine if an agency should be considered in your search.
  2. Limit the Participants: Strong vetting should result in a smaller pool of agencies who make the cut. (Seriously. We’ve been asked to participate in RFPs for up to 27 agencies. That’s an unacceptable amount of wasted deck preparation time for agencies and review time for clients.) Narrow it down to a handful of highly qualified agencies, then issue an RFP that clearly articulates the requested information and delivery methodology so you can accurately compare responses. Just because spec work is off the table doesn’t mean you can’t ask the agency to curate their most relevant examples, share their process/approach, define who the team members would be, etc. A response should always be accompanied by a meeting (virtual or in person), allowing for Q&A and vibe-sussing on both sides.
  3. Award a Paid Project First: What? An agency is saying you shouldn’t just award a multi-year contract based on steps #1 and #2? That’s right. Just like when a company hires an employee, there is no way to really know if a client-agency relationship is a fit until they start working together. (That’s true even when spec work is involved.) If all goes well with the project, then the client and agency can – and should – move forward into that big partnership commitment. It’s really a much smarter way to assess agency capabilities and fit, and offers a much higher likelihood of success.

Still really want to see creative executions about your brand from agencies during a pitch? No problem: just pay them a reasonable fee for their participation.

Make the No-Spec Pledge

There are so many positive changes happening in the business world. Eradicating the unethical practice of spec work will be another major step forward!

Big companies: we call on you to eliminate spec work from your RFP process.

Big agencies: we call on you to lead the charge in refusing to do spec work.

Small companies: we call on you to remember how disruptive spec work would be to your organization.

Small agencies: we call on you to turn down spec opportunities (and feel free to share this post to explain why).

I’m making the pledge today: The S3 Agency will no longer provide spec creative work.

Spec work is unethical. Let’s eliminate it, together.