Industry Leaders share thoughts on Spec Work

Image from Zulu Alpha Kilo's 'Say No To Spec' video. 


Zulu Alpha Kilo released a video illustrating the problem of speculative work - or in other words, professionals being asked to provide services for free.


The video went viral, reaching over one million views in just a few short weeks. It also sparked a larger conversation around the issue of spec work, how it affects all creative professionals and what can be done about it.
"There's a lot of hand-wringing about spec work that goes on in our industry, but these videos do a great job of pointing out how ludicrous it really is," says Justin Archer, Partner at Berlin Advertising + PR in Edmonton. 
Advertising Chair at OCAD University, Sandy Kedey RGD also appreciates the approach as an effective way of gaining attention for the issue. "By using humour to illustrate how spec creative is often posed to agencies and graduates entering the field, the video really helped the message hit home - a tricky thing to do with such a touchy subject," she says.  
"I had a good laugh when I saw the spots being posted around," says Partner of Jam3 Adrian Belina. "As a project-based digital company, we design and build projects for anyone be it a brand or as a partner of an agency. Sometimes we even see this behaviour happening with ad agencies themselves, asking for spec bids from their production partners, or 'vendors' (a term I personally despise). The video nails the problem and hopefully the message will trickle down to all parts of the industry as well."  
RGD's VP of Ethics and founder of On The Chase! Julian Brown RGD agrees that the video is effective for spreading the word but may require further explanation to fully represent the issue. "These videos are a wonderful, simple way to grab people's attention, but by focusing on products instead of custom services they do leave out some important elements of the discussion," he says. "I've had a client use the comparison of buying a car, telling me that 'people expect to be able to test drive a car, it's a big investment.' The important distinction here is that I'm not selling the same car over and over - I make custom cars. For that reason, you should judge me by my other custom work and by my previous happy customers." 
The creative community is calling for more awareness before we can hope to see this attitude change, but it's something that the industry needs to address from within. "Saying ‘no’ with frequency from both an industry and an academic perspective is paramount. The more we address the issue in our own practice, the better informed both sides will be," says Sandy.
To do this, Julian recommends creating a dialogue and communicating with potential clients about the issue right from the start. "When you do talk to someone about a spec request, don't immediately jump into a rant about ethics. Instead, point out how it negatively affects both parties involved, inform them about the proper design process, starting with research and collaboration. Tell them that a spec concept will not lead to the best solution. Use RGD resources to craft a response that is more likely to have a positive result," he says. "The right response can lead to a real discussion and can start a strong client relationship. It can also be a litmus test - depending on a client's reaction, you might end up crossing them off your list of people you want to work with." 
For Adrian, it's about creating a balance by recognizing the projects that are worth pursuing. "We turn down opportunities where the client asks for too much work up front  and we also let them know why we're turning it down, to help them learn. The bottom line is that creative work and people's time should always be properly paid for." 
Sandy agrees, emphasizing the negative impact for both parties when the issue remains un-addressed. "Speculative work on any level compromises the quality of solution and violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide." 
According to Ian Grais of Rethink in Vancouver, trust and understanding with a client are key to ensuring success on both sides. "I would hope that clients have developed a more sophisticated understanding of how creative problem solving works, and would know that the strongest solutions come from sharing more information and developing more two-way communication about the business/message/product than what would be covered in an RFP." 
The question is whether knowing that spec work is wrong will be enough to change behaviours within the industry. Adrian points out the problem of competitiveness as a key barrier to change. "For most, the temptation to take part in a pitch is triggered by how interested we are in the opportunity," he says. "You can institute rules about taking part in spec work, but when a huge opportunity comes knocking, most people will throw the rules out the window and go for it."   
Justin also acknowledges the problem of temptation. "I think everyone who owns an agency knows it's no good for the industry, but sometimes they will make an exception if their back is really up against a wall," he says. "For a big project, it seems like some agencies will trip over themselves to bring in spec work if they think it will help them win the job. As firm owners, we just need to do a better job of saying no. If everyone stopped doing it, the issue would be over. It's pretty simple, actually."  
Stephen Jurisic believes that the best way to avoid spec work is to build chemistry with your client by showing capability. "What you lose in a creative pitch is you don't have time to create client chemistry. You can't see the relevant capabilities because the client gets caught up in the product rather than the firm itself," he says. "Instead of a creative pitch, be creative in how you represent yourself as a company."
For more information on RGD's policy against speculative work, click here. To see examples of the Association's advocacy for creative professionals, click here
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