If you are a “creative vendor”—a freelance copywriter, ad agency, web designer, photographer, videographer, graphic artist, or anyone else who produces marketing communications—you will invariably be asked every so often by a potential client to work on “spec”.
If you are a client, you may have already asked one or more vendors to work on spec or be thinking of doing so.
By “on spec”, I mean the vendor does the work for you on a purely speculative basis.
If the client likes the work, he will pay the vendor for it and for any additional work commissioned.
If the client doesn’t like the work or does not use it for any other reason (or for no reason at all), the vendor is paid nothing and has worked for free.
The client is under no obligation to use the work and pay for it, or even to explain why he is not using it.
Here’s why asking creative vendors to do spec work is, in my opinion, a very bad idea:
1. To begin with, the vendor resents being asked to work on spec. Trust me, we really do. So it starts the whole client/vendor relationship off on a negative, almost adversarial note.
2. The main reason to ask a vendor to work on spec is because the client is uncertain about the quality of the vendor’s work.
The solution is for the client to review plenty of sample projects the vendor has completed for other clients. By doing so the client will quickly know whether the vendor’s style is compatible with his vision for the finished project.
3. Vendors give their time, attention, and best work to paying clients. Spec clients are not paying clients. Therefore, the vendor seeks to complete the spec assignment with as little time expenditure as possible because payment is so uncertain. So spec work is invariably far inferior to the work you would get if you just hired the vendor and paid her normal rate.
4. Creative services is perhaps the only area of business where the possibility of spec work is even on the table. Spec work is not the way business is done in America.
If you don’t believe me, ask your dentist to give you some implants, and tell him that IF you like the way they look, you will pay him. But if you are unhappy, you won’t. And try not to trip has he shoves you out the front door of his practice.
5. Doing creative work right—and in my case, that’s copywriting—requires a huge amount of effort up front to research and learn the product and the market before the first sentence is written. It necessitates a lot of client involvement.
But in spec work, clients seem to want to see what you do without all that vital research and preparation. So you don’t have the same access to them you would get if they were paying you. And spec work is invariably inferior as a result.
6. In spec work, you are working for a client without compensation. The client gets your work for free. The problem is that when people get something for free, they don’t value it or take it seriously. Clients only take you seriously—and give you the collaborative cooperation quality creative work demands—when they are paying you…despite what they may say to the contrary.
7. Let’s say you do a great job, and the client AGREES that you have done a great job. But then the client’s boss decides not to do the promotion. In that case, you don’t get paid even though they were happy. And they don’t care.
Beginning vendors in varying disciplines argue with me when I tell them not to work on spec by saying, “That’s all well and good for you, Bob. You have decades of experience, dozens of clients, a massive collection of testimonials, and a large portfolio of work.
“But I am a beginner and have none of that. I want to land an A-list client but I don’t have the credentials. Isn’t spec work a good way to get a foot in the door?”
No, for the reasons stated above: if you are not getting paid, it means the client does not respect you or what you do. If they did, you would have a purchase order and a retainer check.
(No time in my 34-year career, including back when I was a novice, have I ever written copy on spec.)
The solution is to work with C-list and B-list clients in the beginning of your career, and do great work for them so you compile a substantial client list, great portfolio, and fantastic testimonials.
At that point, an A-list client will be more willing to give you a chance on a project for standard fees and terms, and not ask you to work on spec, because of your impressive track record.
Bob Bly is the author of “World’s Best Copywriting Secrets” and has written copy for more than 100 companies including IBM, Boardroom, Medical Economics and AT&T. He is the author of more than 75 books and a columnist for Target Marketing, Early To Rise and The Writer. McGraw-Hill calls him “America’s top copywriter”.