great matters


Why Ad Agencies Shouldn't Do Spec Creative

// January 5, 2010 // Advertising // 3 Comments

Every once in a while, a potential client – often one we would really like to work with — asks us to participate in an agency review. Initially we are thrilled to hear we are on their list, until the RFP arrives and we learn they want us to do spec creative as part of their process.  Groan. Deal killer.

Larry Tate should not have done spec creativeMaybe at the big agencies where multi-million dollar brands are pursued by companies with inflated egos and gargantuan overhead expenses, this would be considered de rigueur.  In fact, according to AdWeek, 154 major accounts shifted agencies in 2009 to the tune of $20.6 billion in billings. Presumably, those big agencies have the resources to commit to a freebie speculative assignment from a potential new client.  And perhaps, they are willing to use their considerable creative talents, strategic brainpower and billable hours (or in this case non-billable hours) to devote on the “if-come.”

Smaller shops like Bailey Gardiner cannot afford to do that for a number of reasons. And actually, the cost issue is not the most important among them.  Here’s some reasons why we don’t think spec creative works for anybody:

  • Unlike some of the bigger shops, boutique agencies do not have people sitting around waiting to be devoted to the latest new business effort.  We have to schedule it, just like any other job that gets trafficked through the system.  Since we try to employ the right amount of talent to match the current workload, the teams are usually pretty well booked with paying client work, so…. the result is added workload on already stressed team members.  This is not a recipe for top-quality creative results.
  • Many creative ad agencies like ours believe in the strategic branding process, and this provides the basis for all creative assignments.  We spend untold hours researching, planning, meeting, planning and strategizing WITH THE CLIENT to reach a point where we are mutually clear on a marketing direction.  Only then can we embark on a well-informed creative process that will fulfill those goals.  How could we just pull all that out of the air in the spec creative process? To do all that in the dark, often with only a few weeks time, is not optimum.
  • This business is not like you see on TV.  Mad Men and Bewitched are entertaining and amusing, but Larry Tate and Don Draper are not true depictions of how good creative ideas are hatched.  You do not get good creative work by staying up all night, sketching a concept at the last minute, presenting to the client the next morning all jacked up on coffee, and winning the account because the client loves your BIG IDEA. Oh wait, that sounds like a regular work day after all.  Never mind.
  • In past negative experiences with spec creative, we have seen the potential client put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. By this I mean that the client bases their agency decision solely on whether or not they like the creative idea they see – not the team, their expertise, their ability to deliver, their longevity, their smarts or anything else they like or hate about them.  This can be a dangerous road for a client, since there is no way of knowing whether the creative they have fallen in love with was a one-time stroke of luck.
  • Some agencies (disclosure: we have done this, too) bring in outside talent to help with spec creative and new business assignments.  If the client chooses this work, the agency team they are ultimately working with may not be the team that originated the creative they chose.  In a classic bait and switch, the agency may have won the account but now must live up to creative their team may not be able to replicate.  Plus, you have an in-house team that resents having to work on a creative direction designed by freelance talent.  Creatives want to own their work, and this direction does not allow it. Bad internal juju ensues.
  • Plus — and this is a big one — spec creative is actually kind of insulting. We get paid as professionals for the hard work it takes to create compelling, creative and most of all, successful, marketing campaigns.  It’s really not right to ask for that for free. It devalues the considerable talents of the entire team, and all the many hours/days/weeks/months/years/decades we have put into our craft to become among the best there is.  A client should hire us because they are convinced we are the right partner to lead them with creative and strategic solutions.  Not because we made a pretty picture and wrote a great headline on the fly.

MadMen Should not have done spec creative Now watch, a great opportunity will come through for a new  client I’ve been dying to work with, and I will end up approving a spec assignment and win the business.  Maybe then I will get off my soapbox on this topic, but right now I still say it’s not worth it for either side.  Done deal.

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    author bio

    Chief Relationships Officer/Rainmaker/Strategy Guy/Goof. A guy with a point of view and not afraid to share it. Jon is a student of human behavior, and loves linking his odd perceptions with real-life brand situations. Organic farmer and keeper of menagerie that includes a dog, chickens, fish, crawdads and soon a gecko. His kids still think he's cool at least.


    1. Great post Jon. Your position on spec creative really made me think. It is very difficult (I have been there far too many times) for teammates to manage projects when asked to constantly drop client work to accommodate non-client work. I understand this may be part of agency life, but when we evaluate the dollars, manpower/womanpower and accuracy (as you outlined above) I find it hard to justify. However, as a self-proclaimed stress addict, I can see where some might argue the latter if agency cost and consistency is not factored.

      Happy New Year!

    2. Larry Tate! Gotta love that guy.