2 min Read
December 15, 2009

Asking for creative work on spec

In the advertising and architecture worlds it’s common to see projects awarded after competitions have been conducted or pitches completed. Typically, the client issues a brief with guidelines and either puts out an open call for anyone to respond or invites selected candidates to respond. Participants spend time at their own expense to develop creative ideas and present them with no compensation- simply the hope of being awarded the project. This approach is called doing work “on spec” because it’s speculative in nature.

Many agencies race to produce “spec” work.

For years, the design industry (advertising’s upscale sibling) has fought against doing work on spec, and most design firms shun it. Recently I stumbled upon an entire site devoted to the topic. If you’re a nonprofit wondering whether it’s reasonable to ask agencies you’re considering to develop some ideas for you in their proposal, this may even be worth a quick review.

Most agencies have clear policies about whether or not they’ll do work on spec. Typically established design, PR, or general communications firms won’t, whereas younger, hungrier firms might, in order to build their business. Professional associations in the field mostly take positions on this issue, such as AIGA – the trade organization most designers belong to, which acknowledges that spec work happens but generally frowns on it in their policy.

Most requests for spec work are motivated by a desire to understand what the work will be like before a commitment is made- I want to be sure I’ll be happy with it before I commit to buying it. While that makes sense on the surface, it neglects the relationship part of working together. What if, for example, the design work is great but the schedule is totally ignored?

Instead of focusing on the final outcome, try focusing on process instead to assess what both the journey and the destination will look like. A firm with experience should be able to show you case studies or examples of their work, ideally in some related area. As you review their work, the quality of their thinking, project management skills, and creative talent should become clear. You’ll be able to assess where they’re strongest and where they’re weakest, and whether or not you’ll feel confident working together.

If you enter into a working relationship, you’ll be able to do so with confidence that you’ve selected a firm who’s skills and capacity are a good fit.