The marketing communications business is often misunderstood in terms of value, benefit, and, unfortunately, getting paid. As a creative services firm, prospects often ask communications professionals (us) to do work for free – also known as “speculative creative” or “pitching” in order for the client to determine whether or not they will hire us. It’s the old “try the milk before you buy the cow” scenario and it happens in the marketing communications profession on a daily basis.

While some marketing professionals succumb to this dog and pony show in the hopes of getting paid if their results are satisfactory for the client, there are hundreds of professional firms, like us, who are saying “No” to this degrading and valueless proposition.

Some clients do not even realize that it is unethical and unprofessional to ask for spec work, problem solving, “noodling an idea,” etc before engaging financially with an agency. AIGA, the professional association for design, has this statement on “Spec work-”

“AIGA believes that doing speculative work seriously compromises the quality of work that clients are entitled to and also violates a tacit, long-standing ethical standard in the communication design profession worldwide. AIGA strongly discourages the practice of requesting that design work be produced and submitted on a speculative basis in order to be considered for acceptance on a project.”

How about a little “Chef” scenario:
Imagine yourself walking into a fine restaurant. You hear the chef is one of the best in town. You discuss with the chef and your server your particular tastes and ask if he could prepare something to suit your needs. You then tell them to “cook up a proposal” of how they will prepare the meal and request they include samples, specific ingredient lists and preparation techniques for the dish. Then, you say once you eat this “example of work,” you will then decide whether or not to pay them.

What do you think the answer would be?

No half-intelligent chef (cook, waiter, bartender, busboy, etc.) would ever agree to this, and before having you thrown out the front door, he’d probably make you realize that his time is money and you better darn well understand you’re going to have to pay before he gives you his best recipes, or offers a single bite to satisfy your hunger!

These propositions are not accepted in any other industry, yet the creative profession is constantly burdened by this ridiculous process.

Case in point:
Just a few months ago, CreateWOW was asked to meet with a potentially HUGE prospect. Over the course of two (very long, very involved) meetings, this prospect requested us to give up our ideas, to offer solutions to some of their most serious business issues and to put it all down in a thoroughly outlined proposal. So we did, with pricing and a generous payment structure that would make all parties comfortable withe the campaign.  And in the final conversation the “client” asked how soon we could have mock-ups and plans drawn out that coincided with the proposal we’d drawn up.  We told then in all confidence “A couple weeks.”  They returned with “The contract is signed and we’ll have the working deposit to you at the first of the month.”

In the course of the weeks that followed those meetings and proposal, we performed minor projects and invoiced them for updates just “Get their site working correctly” – relatively minor things, but work nonetheless. Have we seen penny one? No.

After a couple pleasantly stated invoices and a statement showing balance on work done, we receive this:

…can your schedule even allow taking on this project?  We talked weeks ago about the urgency of this getting up and running in which you agreed …  You were also going to have a mock site prepared so that we could start pre-selling advertisement which would allow us to quickly pay for the site redevelopment.  Please let me konw (sic) your thoughts here.

Spec work is one thing, red flags are another.

Sure we want the gig – it has a potential six-figure price tag – but the bottom line is we reserve our best work and ideas for our paying clients. We only divulge our best work when we thoroughly diagnose the company’s history, goals, challenges, needs and so forth (TRUE Branding). How can we, in good conscience, offer effective solutions when we haven’t been paid for the minor requests they’d made since the proposal had been given. And what of the working deposit? Did they remember that part or did they just look at the bottom line?

In an email this morning, I reminded them of all of the things I listed above.  Including paying for the work done to date and the deposit for future work. Enough said. I have confidence that we will continue with the client, but it has to be on MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL TERMS!

The Take-Away?

We encourage all creative service firms and all companies looking to hire a creative service firm to think long and hard about doing or requesting spec work. Business relationships should be equally valued for both the agency and client. Spec work only puts weight on one side of the table. And eventually one party will get up and leave.

What do YOU think of requesting free spec work from creative communications agencies? Are you a company that expects to “try the milk before you buy the cow?”  Or what of my creative consultant readers out there? How often do you run across this situation? How do you handle it?

Let’s stir up the conversation!

Keep Cooking (but get paid for it)!
Andrew B. Clark
The Brand Chef

1 Comment
  1. When someone wants to you develop a full strategy, mock ups, and X to “prove you know what you’re doing”…run to the hills. NO matter how much money it might mean in the short term, the long term will be pain and misery and loathing. Read “Built to Sell” (Warrilow). It’s a great wake up call for creatives. The example in the book is a little unrealistic but it serves the purpose.