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For Free or Not For Free? How (Whether?) to Utilize Spec Work

Written By Courtney Abud | Jun 14, 2016

That is the question, my friends. Do you show a little leg by doing speculative work (“spec work” for us cool kids) or demand payment for every hour spent?

The topic’s been widely debated recently, with one agency (Toronto’s Zulu Alpha Kilo) even going so far as to make a video in which they asked people—real people, not actors—for free work or goods. As you can imagine, the personal trainer, restaurateur, interior designer and other professionals didn’t respond kindly to Zulu Alpha Kilo’s Request for Proposal (RFP). Their reactions beg the question: Why do we, as creative professionals, still do spec work?

On one hand, you need to prove you’ve got the right stuff.

Okay, okay. So the client wants to ensure that you’ve got the right level of talent and experience to handle the job. But what is it about spec work that answers this better than a look at past work, and a few in-depth conversations?

In an August 2015 interview with AdWeek, Mike Wolfsohn of High Wide & Handsome suggested that there really isn’t an advantage to picking an agency via spec work. The practice serves to “demean the profession,” he said. “Pitches rarely resemble what a working relationship would be like between agency and client.”

“A campaign that’s new and different is hard to buy from people you don’t know.”

AdvertisingAge’s Tom Denari even went so far as to say that spec campaigns have “little chance of moving a business forward.” He argues that these pitches are based on shallow consumer insights, and were designed to please the client first and foremost—not the consumer. Further, spec work tends to be safe because, as Denari claims, “A campaign that’s new and different is hard to buy from people you don’t know.”

And while Wolfsohn and Denari’s concerns come from an agency perspective, these points are valid for freelancers, too. A true professional should have a solid portfolio that shows their range of abilities and past experiences. If clients like what they see, opponents of spec work say the next logical step would be a face-to-face meeting to discuss their needs and goals, and determine if that particular professional is the right person to handle the task at hand.

So, why aren’t clients dropping the spec work model?

Well, let’s be honest. It’s free work. It’s a chance for them to field a lot of options at a low cost. Designer Paul Galbraith says that using the spec work model can be a great way for clients to get work turned around quickly, since in-demand professionals often need plenty of notice before they can take on more work. He goes on to say that often, freelancers are willing to take on spec work in the hopes that they will earn money from the work in the future, gain experience and boost their exposure. Unfortunately, as Galbraith notes, these perks are not guaranteed.

Just Creative‘s Jacob Cass says that some clients believe it’s a chance to even the playing field for up-and-coming creative professionals, those without a lot of past experience to lean on. And Zy Gonzales at UCreative points out that if you win the work, it’s something you can brag about down the line. But even Gonzales agrees that large calls for spec work, such as a design contest for a logo, do more damage than good. These competitions push designers to outperform and outbid one another, which ultimately causes oversupply in the market, and devalues the work.

But I’m new to the game! How else am I going to get noticed?

I’m about to confuse you, or make you angry, but if you don’t have a solid portfolio that touts your skills, you need to do spec work—just not as part of an RFP or contest. Instead, pick a few products and services you care about and build campaigns around them that showcase your skills. By creating work outside the parameters of a pitch, you can take the time you need to gather insights, and design something you can be really proud of. And listen up, non-newbies—you should try doing your own spec work every once in a while, too. Bart Cleveland of the Job Propulsion Lab suggests that you should aim to replace your portfolio completely every two to three years. He urges creative professionals to be discriminating about the work you showcase. Great agencies don’t hire people with average books—and neither do great clients.

In the age of viral videos and content, spec work done in school or in your free time can be a great way to gain exposure. Earlier this year, aspiring director John Wikstrom created a spec ad for Xbox called “Player Two” that reached one million YouTube views in about two weeks. Once he’d posted it on Vimeo and YouTube, Wikstrom says he didn’t do anything else to promote the work besides share it via social media. Soon, it was on the front page of Reddit, and chosen as a Vimeo staff pick.

Player Two

When I asked him via email if he thinks coverage of his spec work was helpful for his career, Wikstrom told me, “Absolutely! We’ll have to wait for the dust to settle before I know what’s really next, but positive coverage is always helpful, and the response to “Player Two” has been amazing. Currently, I’ve been working on a client-direct spot with a brand, and I’ve been getting to talk to some production companies about representation—and both of those opportunities sprung entirely from the spot.”

He went on to say that his only regret is that he didn’t make something sooner. So, is it safe to say that Wikstrom is for spec work? Well, in the context of unsigned directors, he said, “I think it’s necessary that you have something to show people. Several people I’ve spoken to this month have used this same phrase: ‘It’s never a trust-me business, it’s a show-me business.’ I don’t think you can find opportunities to direct without having something else you’ve done to show people. Now, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a spec ad, it just needs to get people’s attention. It can be a short film, a music video, just something that shows what you have to offer.”

What’s the answer?

Personally, I think Wikstrom is right. This is a “show-me business,” but maybe there’s a balance to be achieved. No one should have to spend hours and hours on a project just for the chance to be paid. As Andrew Griffiths notes over at Inc., when people ask you to work for free, they don’t value what you do, or appreciate the investments you’ve made in education and training.

But, like Morgan Ryan points out at Flywheel, the only way to stop the spec work model throughout the industry is for everyone to stop doing spec work. So, instead of offering up our talents for little-to-no reward, maybe it’s time to do what we can to spruce up our portfolios—even if it means a doing a little self-motivated, unfiltered spec work on our own—and encourage potential clients to take a deeper look. By redefining spec work in this way, we can begin to elevate our work and rebuild our value—all while working to make the process better for generations of creatives to come.

Courtney Abud is a copywriter and creative strategist who works full-time at Bulldog Solutions, and serves on AD2ATX‘s Communications Committee.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.