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Give It Away Now: Why Some People Willingly Do Spec Work

Pitch That Pitch

Pitching new business. The late nights and weekends slogging through meagre research materials, looking to suss out that little kernel of insight that will inform speculative creative presented in big fancy meetings with a number of prospective clients that are judging everything from your hairstyle, to how you kerned the word "Spoon" in a funky soup ad, to your slight lisp that comes out whenever you get nervous.

We all love to hate it. Pitch and bitch, as the saying goes.

Or do we?

I think there is a ton of dialogue out there about why designers shouldn't do spec work or give away big strategic insights when pitching new business. You need a signed contract. Clients need to respect your process. Working without payment is not professional. We're selling services, not products. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And yet there are plenty of people out there that are willing to do spec creative, deliver game-changing strategy willingly in the pitch, and take part in any number of other questionable activities necessary to land new business.

Just who are you, spec-friendly designer?

You have intentionally focused your design services into a specific niche that thrives on pitches.

Many agencies specialize in niche mediums: motion graphics, sales promotions, direct mail, and the like. It is common in some of these industries to pitch ideas up front to obtain client work -- and agencies that handle these mediums are fairly open about it. Some clients consider this how artistic souls must "pay for the privilege" to receive plum projects, and agencies factor it into their project costs. It's a dirty little public secret that I trip over every month or two in chatting with my colleagues.

Motion graphics, as a whole, seems to be rough for securing high-profile assignments. I saw Kyle Cooper give a talk last year, and he described how when he exited Imaginary Forces to found Prologue Films, he was pitching spec work regularly to get in the mix with other established agencies. His great opening sequence for Wimbledon was spec, as well as many others that we know and love. (Kyle Cooper! Doing spec!)

For some insight into how the pitching process functions for motion graphics, there's a very telling piece on the Stranger Than Fiction DVD about how the film's effects were pitched by MK12.

You don't make money from services. You make them from markups on materials.

I worked at an agency where all profit was made off markup on printing. Other services were flat fee. Clients came to us for that product. Pitches followed a rigorous formula, contingent on showing big idea concepts with reams of completely designed executions -- often in the hope that the client would just pick one direction wholesale and we could move the concepts right into production.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Well, they're highly profitable and one of the few agencies that will probably sweat out this economic downturn unscathed.

Was it a healthy environment for the staff? Did we enjoy doing multiple pitches for major pieces of business, working regularly through many nights and weekends to sweat out a high volume of creative that, upon losing a piece of business, we would need to throw in the recycle drawer for the next long dark night of the soul? Was there a great love of working the same formats, with minor variations, from month to month?

Draw your own conclusions.

Your clients demand pitching once a project reaches a certain dollar amount, due to company policy.

Most design agencies trip over this issue when they start to grow larger. You end up making a philosophical choice between staying small with integrity versus growing larger and taking more gambles on high-value assignments. A large client's procurement-focused mentality can turn agency discussions into cattle calls.

You've got staff just sitting around with plenty of free time, and if you don't keep them busy you'll have to let them go.

"Carl's just sitting around with no projects on his plate, and this new proposal just came in, so let's just have him give it a shot at it. What have we got to lose?" I've freelanced at shops -- no names -- where they have been in the throes of massive pitches that included spec work for the simple reason that if they didn't secure the revenue, they'd end up punting everyone on the floor. You can generally keep your staff employed if you can close at least 50% of your pitches with this kind of mentality. (And service the new pieces of business without ballooning your staff.)

You work at a big-ass advertising agency and want that huge account that just went into review.

Good luck with that one. If you want to be a Mad Wo/Man, you're generally required to roll up your sleeves and give up big-money thinking for the privilege to be considered for servicing most Fortune 500 accounts. A recent trend has been to give agencies under consideration token payments for spec assignments, but usually those dollar amounts are vastly lower than the amount of billable time necessary to really woo a client over. Also, the use of search consultants, who facilitate agency reviews, can really hurt.

You're super-excited about getting design work, no matter what the cost.

Are you just sitting around waiting for an unpaid design assignment that may or may not lead to paying work? I remember talking with the business manager of a local nightclub a few years ago. She selected a graphic designer for a rebranding project because he was willing to roll up his sleeves and show them some of his ideas to secure the job. They considered this an indication of his excitement to be their partner and they loved his design directions.

It didn't matter that the amount of work attached to this project was teeny. This was the key differentiator in their purchasing decision.

If this is a core tenet of your business practice, you're making it harder for yourself and everyone else in our profession. There are ways to communicate the value of design without actually designing client-facing deliverables.

That said, the flip side of this situation is also true...

Your prospective clients didn't feel you were the right fit, but you gave away ideas to convince them otherwise.

Until you've got a decent portfolio, a degree of versatility in client-speak, and the understanding of how to craft a good proposal that only tips your hat at a specific audience strategy, spec work is often the only way to articulate your point of view. And if one of your competitors happened to show spec work, you might be offered the "opportunity" to match their contribution before the client makes a decision during a pitch. Oi.

For you, design is just a hobby. You can afford to give it away.

This one hurts the most, and it needs no window dressing.


All of that said, I think you can suss out my point of view. I can say that the main reason I'm so passionate about protecting the value of my ideas is from having given so many away. I would never do spec work as part of any personal engagement, period. That said, here are some pieces that have stuck in my mind regarding spec work practices that may add some color to this discussion.

Jeffrey Zeldman's take on spec work is always refreshing.

This post on Speak Up by Gunnar Swanson yields some interesting points about the real cost to us of spec work.

I really liked Eric Karjaluoto's post a while back on Ideas on Ideas about open design competitions.

An old, yet still applicable piece about how pitching happens at the big ad agencies. If you really want to know. A few tips by Jack Neff on HOW Design's site.


zamzam design

"the main reason I'm so passionate about protecting the value of my ideas is from having given so many away".

One day I realized, too, that I had given enough of my ideas away. That was the end of it.

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