The Trouble With Spec Work

Posted in Insights

It still happens – the request for proposal that includes a request to provide free creative. It’s called “spec work.” Even now, with 20+ years of demonstrable brand, creative, strategic expertise under our belt, the idea that we need to prove we can do the work never seems to go away. We love to collaborate with clients, and you’ll end up getting a lot of that free when you “bring friends” like us. But if you ask us to provide free work upfront to show we’ve got the goods, we’ll give lots of reasons why it’s not a good idea.

We’ve been saying it for awhile. Others have, too. But we thought it time for us to say it in slides. So the latest in our series of 20 FINE Slides is “The Trouble With Spec Work.” It’s got a friendly face, but a serious message – asking for free work doesn’t help clients or agencies. There are better ways to court a creative partner.

Check it out. Share it. Live it.

[slideshare id=65103852&doc=spec-workslideshare-160817222838]




*{Slideshow Summary, For Algorithms and People with Long Attention Spans}
Spec work is free work used to “test” or “pitch” an agency’s chops. It’s a holdover from the days of Madmen, when agencies used creative as a loss leader for obtaining big media buy revenue. Today, it’s a bad idea for clients and agencies alike because unpaid work rarely gauges the quality of an agency’s paid effort, can eliminate the agencies that are in highest demand and don’t need the work from a client’s search. More to the point, there’s no such thing as “free” work; it’s just a matter of who pays for it.

Imagine the analogies in other industries: have 3 CPAs do your taxes free but pay for the one that gets a refund, order 3 free sandwiches and pay for the one you finish, have 3 lovely massages but pay for the loveliest.

There are better ways to pick a partner.

  1. Know what you want. Think it through or pick someone who can help.
  2. Review the portfolio. Look for proven greatness. Look for challenges like yours, not always in your industry.
  3. Call some references. Ask them about collaboration and working relationship most.
  4. Talk to the agency at length. See if they seem excited to work through things with you.
  5. Pay for a test. If you want to see some you-specific work before committing, carve out a small test and pay for it.

If you abolish spec work, your work, your agency partners, and the world, will improve.

Read more on spec at

Or find some good articles with perspective on choosing an agency, like this one.

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