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It's Time for Us All to Ditch Spec Creative Pitches

Why working for free is bad for everyone

It's obvious why spec work is bad for agencies. But it's bad for clients, too. Getty Images

Five years ago, we made an unconventional decision at Zulu Alpha Kilo. Despite being a startup with only a few clients at the time, we started saying no to free speculative creative work in new business pitches.

It was a risky move for an agency in its infancy. It meant that we would end up walking away from nearly 80 percent of the RFPs that landed in our inbox. In the beginning, it even made a lot of Zuligans uncomfortable. It left potential clients confused. After all, who says no to new business? Some potential clients were frustrated. Some thought we were crazy. But then a select few were very intrigued. A couple of them even changed their RFP process so that we could pitch their business. And then there was that rare breed that never asked us for spec in the first place. (Many of them are Zulu clients today.)

Zak Mroueh

And guess what? Five years later, we didn't implode. In fact, we've continued to grow at an exponential rate, winning some of the most coveted accounts in our country without ever having to pitch spec creative.

Yet spec work remains entrenched in our industry. It's an antiquated practice that has been part of the creative world since the Mad Men era. It's a cog in the increasingly bureaucratic procurement machine.

We'd like to help unchain clients and agencies from this outdated process. Because we really do believe that it's bad for clients. It's bad for agencies. And it's bad for the entire industry.

It's obvious why spec work is bad for agencies. It's expensive. It's time-consuming. It's stressful. And let's face it—it's essentially an institutionalized way of getting us to work for free. Several years ago, I was disheartened to see that a creative idea we pitched on spec was picked up by the client and used globally—without any recognition or compensation for Zulu. Not even an acknowledgement or a thank you. I had nobody to blame but myself for participating in the spec process to begin with.

As we showed in our recent video featuring real people being asked to do spec, diners don't fork over free meals. Personal trainers don't do your workouts on spec or give away their intellectual property. So why are we giving away our ideas? Like the guy in our video says, "Who would ever agree to that?" Sadly, we know the answer.

On the surface, it may seem like a good idea for clients to harvest a smorgasbord of free ideas during the pitch process, but it can actually do more harm than good. Here's why spec work isn't doing clients any favors, either:

1. It may not be an accurate reflection of the agency's talent roster.
Spec work has become so entrenched in our industry, it often means that incredibly talented freelancers are simply brought in to fill in for pitches. They do the work for the full-timers who will actually work on the business but are too busy to work on the pitch. As a client, this means you're not getting a clear picture of the kind of work you would actually get from the team that would work on your business.

2. It can be a big, shiny distraction.
Agencies know how to seduce clients with dazzling creative work. But if you choose an agency based on an emotional reaction to a creative concept instead of a logical evaluation of all the important criteria, chances are pretty good that you're not going to wind up with your ideal long-term partner. Instead of getting caught up in the sexiness of creative, look at other, equally important evaluation factors like chemistry and a proven track record of producing brilliant work. To help identify what's really important, consider hiring a credible, well-respected third-party pitch consultant to help you navigate the process and ensure that all agencies are pitching on a level playing field with no tricks (like unsolicited spec work) up their sleeves.

3. It saps resources away from an existing client's account.
If I were a client, I would gravitate toward the agencies that don't do spec work. Spec has led to an epidemic in the industry where agencies are constantly diverting resources away from their existing clients in order to fuel new business opportunities. And here's the big reveal: Guess who is paying for it all? You, the client. You're the ones who end up funding the spec pitch process. It's a crazy cycle that hurts you in the end.

4. It can hinder groundbreaking ideas.
If an agency is investing major time and money into a pitch, very few shops are brave enough to go out on a limb to put forward an earth-shattering new concept. It's too risky in a pitch. They're going to look at what you've done in the past, get a sense of what you like and give you more of the same. And more of the same may not be what your brand needs.

5. It's ultimately bad for everyone's bottom line.
Spec work costs agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and production expenses. But it can also be costly for the client, too. Over the past seven years at Zulu, I've had one very large client who has called me three times to participate in their RFP. Incredibly, they've gone through three agencies in that time. I've advised them every time why spec work is not a good way to choose an agency partner. But I've failed in getting them to change their process. On the flip side, I can name dozens of smart, sophisticated clients who didn't ask for spec work and are still working with the same shop a decade later. I've noticed a correlation: Clients who ask for creative spec in pitches are quite often the same clients who never have a long-lasting relationship with an agency. We see this all the time. It's churn, and it's expensive. Just think of all the wasted hours you'll spend searching for a new agency and bringing them up to speed, only to have to go through the process again a few years later. Wouldn't it better for your business to get it right the first time around?

Now, some of you reading this may think that we are anti-client. We are not. That would be ridiculous. Clients are the very reason we exist. We love our clients. If we are against anything, it's diverting our clients' money to fund work for future clients.

To me, it's clear that this process isn't working for anyone anymore. If we're going to do creative work for free, let's all put that creative effort behind a worthwhile charity or cause that can change the world for the better. Let's say yes to building long-term creative and strategic partnerships. Say yes to solving real-world business problems. Say yes to elevating the industry. Together. Because nothing is going to change unless we all join forces to end the misguided venture of spec work. Clients and agencies alike, it's time we all said no to spec.

To everyone who's already joined the conversation, I thank you for adding your voice. We'd love to hear from more of you—clients and agencies alike. Please share your comments and stories with #SayNoToSpec and visit zulualphakilo.com/saynotospec to see the debate evolve.

—Zak Mroueh is chief creative officer and founder of Canada's Zulu Alpha Kilo.

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