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

Why working for free is bad for everyone

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We'd like to help unchain clients and agencies from this outdated process.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.