Should Your Advertising Agency Do Spec Creative?

Should Your Agency Do Spec? No! Yes. No Way. OK, Have to. Nope, Never. And, On And On.

specworkDamn, that’s an age old and very perplexing question. I answered it in a chapter in my pitch book, The Levitan Pitch. Buy This Book. Win More Pitches. and have an excerpt on this subject below.

I have been thinking (rethinking) about the question of whether or not advertising agencies should do spec creative or not. It was sparked by David Gianastasio’s ADWEEK article, “Can Agencies Win If They Don’t Play the Spec Pitch Game? The pros and cons of creating free work to win work.” David cites the El Segundo agency High Wide & Handsome’s refusal to do spec work. As High Wide & Handsome says…

When Mike Wolfsohn and his two partners left Southern California agency Ignited in 2010 to form High Wide & Handsome, they vowed not to participate in competitive pitches requiring contenders to foot the bill for speculative creative work. Such exercises “demean the profession,” said Wolfsohn, who decries the process as “a reality show to impress some panel of judges. Pitches rarely resemble what a working relationship would be like between agency and client.”

OK, more power to them. And, they might be able to pull it off for four  reasons:

  1. Management is experienced with a decent big and famous agency pedigree. A big time client feel-good.
  2. The agency’s current portfolio should instill confidence.
  3. They say that they only want to grow to a max of fifty employees. OK, sounds different. That said, what does this really mean to a client — “we will focus on you? – I guess that’s the pitch. In reality, how do you control this? What if P&G decides that HW&H has to work on Old Spice. Is HW&H gonna say… “no”? Maybe. But this reminds me of an old Portland agency called FourStories that limited its client list (or at least its sales-pitch) to four clients. I always asked them the “what if…? question.
  4. I like this handy-dandy chart that goes well beyond most agencies to begin to try to help a client choose the agency. Most agencies kinda suck at their contact us story.

Im Looking to Hire an Advertising Agency High Wide Handsome

So, should your advertising agency do spec creative? I say yes.

Or, more to the point… Should you categorically say that you will never do spec creative? No. Here is a bit more, on the reality check side of the agency-client continuum from ADWEEK:

Alas, to break through a certain ceiling, spec pitches may—even for independent, entrepreneurial players—prove at some point unavoidable. For example, 35-person Baldwin& in Raleigh, N.C., mostly eschewed such contests for its first half-decade (entering just four and turning down about 15 opportunities). Two years ago, however, founder David Baldwin decided to reconsider. “We started bumping up against this sentence from clients time after time: ‘I’ve got 50 other agencies willing to do this for free'” and pitch without being compensated, he said.

From my book:

Spec Creative

I have been wrestling with the question of whether or not my agencies should do spec creative for new business pitches since my first pitch. I have never been able to answer that question with a definitive yes or no. I have never found a one-size-fits-all answer for all agencies and situations.

Why? Some of the factors that confuse the spec issue are legal, and some are emotional. Some come from a deep belief that a smart client should be able to look at your industry-leading creative work, client successes and dozens of awards to figure out that you are damn good at your job and don’t need to do spec to prove it all over again. And as you will see later in the book, some clients just want to watch your creative process in action. This is one reason I can’t argue with.

More thoughts on this tough decision.

Legal: I think that we can all understand the legal issues. There is the question of ownership and the fear that we won’t win the account, and worse, we’ll see our brilliant ideas being used months down the road by another agency. Legal rights aside, I am not sure that I can remember an agency ever suing a client for giving their ideas away to another agency. I am sure that this has been considered. But legal action hasn’t been taken for all sorts of obvious reasons including how to prove the theft and an agency’s desire not to look overly litigious to the broader marketplace.

Note: See my interview on intellectual property with legal expert Sharon Toerek on page 180.

Emotion: In my experience, agency emotions often rule the do or not do spec decision. Some of the questions we ask ourselves include:

  • Is the client asking for free ideas, and do we think that this is the right way for them to act in this pitch?
  • Do we think we can win the account if we do not do spec work?
  • Do we have an idea so fantastic that we just have to work it up and present it?
  • Do we think we need to do spec to demonstrate our passion and interest?
  • Do we think that the other agencies will do spec work, and if we don’t, we’ll lose?
  • Do we need this account so badly that we have to do whatever it takes and not worry about the consequences? These consequences include the fact that working on spec can hurt agency morale, eats into existing client work, and means that we may need to hire freelancers.

A Tip: 

Here is one way to look at the spec work question. Think of it as The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.

The Good: In my personal experience, the odds of winning the account were greatly improved when we did spec work. The reason why is simple. I have been blessed to work with really good creative talent that wanted to do spec work to prove our excellence. My Citrus partner and ECD Kevin Archer helped us win over 50% of our major pitches. There is no question that his work, passion, and sincere presentation style won accounts. I can’t tell if we would have won without his creative group’s spec work. But I do know that it worked magic.

The Bad: As I said earlier, spec work can create ill will at the agency. It eats us up, has a high cost, and takes away our attention from current clients. If you are wavering at all, don’t do it. Wavering probably means that you could be about to do a half-assed job.

The Ugly: Back to the process issue. You should only do spec work if you have the time to do research and generate the insights necessary to create a smart creative brief that will drive pitch winning creative solutions. Throwing creative spaghetti against the client’s wall while hoping that one or more random ideas stick is a very lame and unproductive business process. If you don’t have the time or energy to build the strategic support for the spec work, then there is a good chance that your creative solutions won’t win you anything.

That’s my take folks.

TheLevitanPitch_COVER_Small-202x300There is much more on the wonderful world of pitching right here at Amazon

And, if you’d like to hear it from my mouth… head over to the FuelLines 2015 New Business Conference in downtown Nashville on October 8. Mention HW&H and I’ll buy you a drink.

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