I know to some that it would seem that the design world has heard all it needs to about the practice of engaging in speculative work. But if the past week has taught me anything, it’s that we don’t talk nearly enough about it. The reality is that engaging in spec work continues to erode the value of what all of us do as designers, and if any of us want our profession to have even a modicum of respect in the world, we’ll answer the call for spec work with an emphatic ‘No.’
The typical story plays out like this: a prospective client calls your design firm. They say they’d like to talk to you about an upcoming project. They want you to develop a proposal for them, some pricing, and they’d really like to see ‘some of your ideas.’ They mention that they’re talking to a few other firms as well, but they make it very clear that there’s a huge payday at stake for the firm who makes the best presentation (i.e. delivers the best speculative work).
I hope to God that you’ve all heard the core arguments about just how damaging this is to all of us. I’ll spare you a regurgitation of all the best arguments, and let you read them straight from the horse’s mouth: Creative Business
makes a strong case on the Creative Latitude site, as does Habib Bajrami. AIGA has all kinds of helpful things to say on the matter, most notably this and this. I’ll save you from the list of thousands, but there’s also great thoughts on the matter from Judy Litt and in the Boston Business Journal.
And yes, you guessed it, I’m writing because I have a salacious personal example to share. A week or two ago, my firm was contacted by a gentleman starting an exciting new endeavor. For the sake of a good story (and a significant non-disclosure agreement that we signed) let’s say that the company developed the next greatest advance in carrot peelers. They knew the company was going to go gangbusters, and they’d need all kinds of expensive design and marketing, but in the very short run, they needed to figure out what to call the company. (They’d been using the working title Carrotpeeler-O-Rama, but knew that just wasn’t going to work long term.) The gentleman told me that they were contacting a few different firms, and were asking each of them to come make a presentation about their skills, and present a set of potential new names for the company. They suggested several times that a significantly large dollar figure was going to be spent on the marketing and design to sell this product, and the firm who presented the best name (without compensation) would ‘win’ the work.
I explained to him that we were not comfortable working in a speculative fashion. After some discussion, he was relatively receptive to my arguments regarding the value of what we do. I suggested to him that if he wanted a day’s worth of thinking from four different firms, he should be willing to pay four different firms for a day’s worth of thinking. (Keep in mind that this situation is certainly not my ideal solution. I’d rather a firm be selected on their track record and abilities, and then allowed to move ahead full steam on a project with all of the background, goals, audience, competition, etc. available to them. However, far be it for me to argue against four firms being hired for a day’s work and getting paid for that day’s work.) Miracle of miracles, the gentleman understood my logic, and agreed that’s how the company would proceed. They’d pay four different firms the same flat fee for their initial thinking on a name for the endeavor, and have them all make successive presentations about their firm, and present their best ‘name’ ideas. (Interestingly, the confirmation letter on the matter stated that they would select their new firm based solely on the names developed, and the credentials of the firms would be used only in the case of a tie.)
Since we’d lost ‘the chance for a huge budget project’ just the week before because of our refusal to work on speculation, I was feeling pretty good about fighting the good fight and winning at least this small battle. (I’d secretly hoped that this same exact transaction would have happened, no matter which firm they’d been in touch with first.) They even provided their business plan as a reference so we would have a solid background to work from, and some good knowledge on their goals and audience. We set off to work immediately, excited about the new challenge.
‘So where’s the salacious story?’ you may be wondering by now. Well, there’s a short but sad end to this fable. Feeling strong about our creative work, we presented our naming ideas and our portfolio and capabilities at our appointed meeting. In the days following, we waited patiently for the answer. And then it came: ‘Hi Drew, this is [Client]; we just wanted to make sure and get a hold of you and let you know that we’ve gone ahead and selected [Other Firm] to do our marketing. You presented some very strong name options, but [Other Firm] brought in complete logos for their top three name choices, and you know how much easier it is to visualize things with an example to look at.’ (I spared him the sarcastic retort that indeed, that’s actually the whole point of logos.) I’m not entirely certain what I ended up saying to him before we got off the phone, because I was still trying to get my head around it all. A firm I’d respected had taken a huge amount of spec work into a presentation without even being asked to do so. We all had the opportunity to get paid for an initial presentation, and they presented spec work anyway. Of course they ‘won,’ but it’s an empty victory.
To be honest, I’m writing this because I’m actually still trying to get my head around it. I understand the desire to land a big client, and I understand the drive to make enough money to keep the doors open. But I don’t understand taking a huge gamble with the only thing of value that you have to bring to the table. [Client] has now received a subtle but clear message that even [Other Firm] doesn’t place value in their own work. It’s an extremely dangerous message to send to this client, and to the business community at large. It’s also disappointing on a couple of other fronts: 1) In the end, the client who asked for creative work without paying for it, got creative work without paying for it. So much for my small victory. 2) Obviously, I’m clear on my firm’s stand on spec work. If we’d known that this was, in the end, going to be a presentation of spec work, we would have opted out right from the beginning.
Most importantly, it’s frustrating because, at its core, this is an issue we all have to fight together. All of us in the design profession are on the same team. If the entire business community understood the value of good design, and saw the effect we can actually have on their bottom line, there wouldn’t be nearly enough design firms to handle all of the business. But when any creative firm reiterates to a business client that it’s okay to give away what we do on a gamble of a big payoff, it’s a huge setback. So I’m raising the horn again and sounding the rallying cry: if we all band together and tell the business community that, like any other professional service, we provide something of great value that is worth paying for, only then can we win the war. Fellow designers, please join me in saying no to spec work.