Why We Don’t Ever Do Spec Work (Except When We Do)

02 Nov 2016


Don Draper had it all wrong.

Sure, the Mad Men antihero was an advertising genius. Episode after episode, he concocted clever marketing campaigns, product taglines, and commercial scripts—all while half-drunk and in an impeccably tailored suit:

But my beef with Don? He almost always did spec work—i.e., speculative designs and marketing strategies, developed for free in order to (maybe) win a new piece of business. Don Draper would drive his creative team to exhaustion creating spec work.

And still, 50 years after the heyday of Madison Avenue giants, many clients still feel entitled to spec work when seeking out a new marketing agency. Companies (understandably) believe that their business is deserving of each prospective agency’s best, most customized pitch—for free.

But 99 times out of 100, TradeMark Media will refuse to do spec work. And you should distrust any agency—advertising, marketing, Web—who offers to do speculative work for free.

A Brief, Terrible History of Spec Work

I founded TradeMark Media in 1999, while I was still an undergrad at UT-Austin.

Back then, the Web still had a “new car smell.” It was mysterious to most people. It was damn near magical.

And so, when a client asked me to build them their own “section of the world wide web,” they didn’t even think about asking for spec work. They weren’t pitting me against other prospective Web designers to see who could “craft the most compelling digital brand.”

Heck, they just wanted to play in this exciting new sandbox—and they trusted me to get them there. Because so few people could.

But that changed quickly.

Web developers and designers sprouted like weeds. Suddenly, everyone had a “cousin who does that Internet stuff.” Web standards evolved, grew more sophisticated. Web technology advanced at an insane pace. (Our refrigerators are online.)

And within a few years, spec work became the norm for companies looking to invest in a quality website. Competition for design business was fierce, and thus, the power rested solely in the prospective client’s hands. If they asked three different agencies to dance, the agencies asked, “Tango or foxtrot?”

Nearly 20 years later and spec work persists. There are more developers and designers than ever, and while the market for quality digital marketing is growing, the competition is just as stiff as ever. Toss in the fact that most Web agencies are small, shoestring teams who are desperate for any business, it’s no wonder spec work remains a popular business strategy for some.

And look, I understand.

I love “the pitch,” too.

I genuinely enjoy sitting across a table from a prospective client, engaging with their story and their business challenges, and helping them think of ways to use the Internet to solve their problems and grow their business. Strategy is my favorite part of my job.

And even though TradeMark Media is the fastest-growing agency in Texas, I’m still, at heart, a strategist and developer. But I’m also a business owner who sees how many hours go into creating custom solutions.

Which brings me to the heart of this article...

Why We Won’t Do Spec Work

There are plenty of sound reasons we should, as an industry, discourage spec work:

It’s an Economic Black Hole

Think about it. If you have 10 agencies each spend 20 hours developing speculative designs, but select only one “winner,” then you have 190 of wasted hours of labor. That’s like one full-time employee working for almost five weeks for free.

The “Blanding” of the Web

Have you noticed that every website looks the same:

  • Giant picture on the homepage
  • 3-4 “value statement” icons below,
  • A carousel of case study links below that, followed by
  • A giant, SEO-friendly footer

Spec work is largely responsible for this sudden “blanding” of the Web. Sure, that design might work. But there are thousands of other designs that might work better.

Agencies create spec designs they think the prospective client will relate to, will understand, will recognize as “what our competitors are doing.”

And so, over the years, Web design has all drained into the same narrow template. Innovation is risky, the agencies (correctly) reason, and so they avoid risk in their spec work as much as possible.

And thus, the Web grows blander and less strategic.

It’s Not Right for the Client

But the biggest reason TradeMark Media doesn’t do spec work is that it runs counter to our entire design ethos.

Here are a few things about Web design and development for certain:

  1. Each client’s audience is unique. No two companies’ users are identical.
  2. “Effective” will always defeat “novel.”
  3. Success online is found on the margins and in the weeds, not in sweeping generalizations.
  4. At their best, websites and apps are iterative, dynamic, and constantly tended to.

Spec work is the exact opposite of these beliefs:

  • Spec work asks agencies to “draw something pretty” without first cultivating the deep insights required to “draw something effective.”
  • Spec work urges creatives to amp up the razzle dazzle without the key ingredient known as “context.”
  • Spec work condescends to prospective clients by making wild, usually wrong, assumptions about their business strategy, audience, buyer’s journey, organization, etc.

(Can you tell I’m not a fan?)

TradeMark Media is a full-service Web design agency. That means we help clients with every aspect of their digital identity—from Web design to usability testing to SEO to email marketing, and so on.

But all of these services are built upon a detailed, ongoing, probing investigation into our client’s organization and their users. Most of the time, the process of designing a website results in a number of organizational epiphanies for our clients—e.g., “Wow, we really do need to re-think how we do X, Y, and Z.”

Website design is, at its core, business consulting. And spec work ignores this in favor of cheap, emotional manipulation. And frankly, I admire and respect our prospective clients too much to deliver sub-par, misguided work.

Our clients’ digital success is paramount to me—and spec work is not only mostly meaningless, it’s potentially harmful. If a client selects an agency based on strategy-less spec work, they’re likely to set off on a redesign that is misguided from the start. And by the time they realize their mistake, it’s too late or expensive to correct course.

If you'd like to know what TradeMark Media is capable of, design-wise, we have a big beautiful portfolio to peruse.

(Except When We Do):

Sometimes, we’ll do spec work.

We’ve been around nearly 18 years, and so of course we’ve been tempted by the promise of big accounts “if we just crank out some dazzling designs.”

While we don’t engage in speculative Web design 98% of the time—because we think it ignores the most fundamental elements of a quality design—there are some rare instances where we have and will do spec work.

We’ll seriously consider developing speculative pitches when:

  • The opportunity is so gargantuan that we’d be fools not to play along.
  • The client has a clearly defined vision for something very specific—and after communicating it, we’re able to proceed with enough insight to generate something effective.
  • We have a free day or two.
  • As an opportunity to boost staff morale by cutting them loose to design something totally bananas.

See? We’re not “above” spec work. We just have a very narrow definition of when it’s worth the significant investment of time, focus, and reputation it requires. And even then, we have a few requirements before engaging in speculation:

  • We have to have some sort of strategic discovery conversation with the client—even if it’s just a 30-minute phone call or email thread.
  • We have to make up for the time spent on the spec work somewhere else.
  • We have to communicate clearly to the prospective client that this is simply speculative—that it’s our most educated guess, but a guess nonetheless. We need the benefit of the doubt.

Don Draper had a ton of fun in those pitches for airlines, soda pops, and snack foods. So yeah, spec work isn’t intrinsically terrible.

But if it becomes a normal, expected part of the sales process, it threatens the reputation of creative agencies. It asks us to emphasize style over substance.

And on the Internet, that spells doom.

Nick Weynand

Founder, President, & Strategy Director

Nick is TradeMark's founder, president, and the Director of Strategy. He's seen everything the Internet has to offer.

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