Monday, January 25, 2010


One of our members posted an interesting question to our LinkedIn group recently. His company was asked to provide spec work on an RFP for some web design work. He wanted feedback from others in the industry as to whether this was "standard operating procedure" or not.

My resounding answer: NO!

Truth is, I'm wary anytime someone asks for spec work. You want to know what I can do? I'm happy to share examples of media coverage or past PR campaigns I've run. If I was a web designer, I'd be happy to provide examples of sites we've designed or re-designed. But I'm not going to give away my ideas for free. If I do, you can take them and pay someone else to execute. My value isn't just in my execution, but also in the ideas I generate. Why would I give away that sort of intellectual property for free?

Am I wrong in finding this to be a ludicrous request? And do many solo practitioners find themselves being asked for this?


David Kutcher said...

Ah, spec work in a RFP. The bain of every agency's existence. My firm is strongly against Spec Work and we recommend that every firm be selective with the RFPs that they invest in with their time and effort. But don't be afraid to push back on the request and speak up, perhaps even recommend that the issuer consider a more considerate RFP process (spec work ranks #3)



Ken Norkin said...

Yes, spec is awful. As much as they hate it, creative businesses of every size from freelancers up to global ad agencies do spec.

We can debate endlessly whether the reasons for doing spec ever outweigh the well-understood reasons for not doing it. And I fully respect those who stick to a hard and fast no spec policy. But I believe they are out-numbered by those that decide on spec on a case-by-case basis.

In my case, had I not particpated with a small design firm to do a spec cover theme and internal spread concept in pursuit of a certain Fortune 500 company's annual report, I would not have had the opportunity to write that report -- or the next two for which we did not have to compete. A day's work and a presentation meeting turned into more than $30,000 of copywriting income.

Other times, I have either refused to do spec (and pulled out competition), pushed back as David suggests to get the prospect to revise their request, or ignored the request and responded with the type of proposal I felt most comfortable doing.

As I said, case-by-case.

Capital Communicators Group said...

I'm curious for those who do spec work if you have any "guidelines" as to how much spec work you'll do, amount of time you'll spend on spec work, etc. And is there any way to "protect" the spec work so that the company can't use it if they don't hire you?

David Kutcher said...

Definitely case by case. Just remember that RFPs are plentiful if you know where to look. Always evaluate the time and effort that will go into the proposal and whether the risk is worth the reward. Developing a Go/No-Go decision tree can often be useful in making this decision.

Robb Deigh said...

Agree - Showing past work is the way to go -proof of your talent. Spec-ing out a whole site is indeed big free work and should be avoided. But, if you want to win the business, I think it is wise to spend just 20 minutes to come up with a very few ideas specific to the potential client. Certainly, if you do not get the account, they will use the ideas anyway. But it shows that you care enough to look at their company and give it some thought. Those few ideas might separate you from the rest of the RFP pack and win the business. It happens. Just because the RFP has 50 questions does not mean you need to answer them all. Tell the contact what you plan to do and then do it. Worst case, you have spent 20 unpaid minutes. Robb Deigh

Capital Communicators Group said...


There is something to be said about showing something if you want to win the business. I followed a similar philosophy once in my job hunt. In my cover letter, I provided ideas about how I would publicize one of the company's products. I still believe the creativity I showed with my ideas helped me land the interview... and, ultimately, the job.

Ken Norkin said...

I'm curious for those who do spec work if you have any "guidelines" as to how much spec work you'll do, amount of time you'll spend on spec work, etc.

My guideline is the value of the work in near term income on the specific project, long term income from repeat assignments (if an ongoing relationship seems likely) and the experience that will qualify me for similar work from other clients.

How much time to put in? Well, an often cited rule of thumb says you spend up to 20% of your time -- the equivalent of about a day a week -- on marketing activities. If that's so, then I suppose you could spend up to 20% of the time-value of a particular piece of work pursuing it. I've just now run some hypothetical numbers, and that seems about right for copywriting projects up to $10,000 (at my hourly rate). Over that much, developing concepts and proposals doesn't take proportionately the same amount of time. Below $8,000 or so I'm more likely to limit the effor to a written proposal without spec. But this is still case-by-case.

And is there any way to "protect" the spec work so that the company can't use it if they don't hire you?


Of course your copyright protects the work -- regardless of whether you put an actual copyright notice on it. But the only real protections against the prospect using the work are their having the ethics not to steal it and your willingness to pursue legal remedies if they do.

Anonymous said...

Check this article out at Capitol Communications: