Why spec work doesn’t work?

Most professional designers prefer not to work on spec. They feel their portfolio should speak for itself. Times are tough. Good work is hard to come by. A prospect calls. They’re interested in working with you, but first they want you to come up with a design or two. No pay, of course, but that may come later.

Free pitching is not the best way to chose a design firm. The process keeps designer from client and forces him to make significant guesses at the requisite diagnosis and prescription that precedes design, and it eliminates real collaboration. It trades a likelihood of a positive outcome (x) for a greater number of far lower likelihoods (5(.2x)). It feels like risk dilution but is not. In agreeing to free pitch, the design agency gives up far more than their ideas; he sacrifices the ability to do their best work.

The thinking that brings value to design is not something that is easily delivered in a free pitch. Getting to it requires an investment on the part of the client, and a willingness to let the consultant lead the engagement. Clients simply cannot invest with two, three or twelve firms at once, and if they haven’t paid fairly, they’re not really committed to the process.

Being a good designer is not enough to ensure business success. The most effective designers are also effective consultants. What separates them from the rest is the thinking that precedes and wraps the design, their ability to lead the engagement, to mitigate risk for the client and to consistently lead the client to high-quality outcomes. Better clients pay a significant premium for this and always will.

Design uncoupled from these advisory services is a product that is approaching commodity status. Sometimes people just need something designed. Quickly, cheaply, nicely. In a market overflowing with sellers, buyers will get this need met but our experience is that ‘often the cheapest purchase costs the most in the long term’. There is no mass defection of good clients with decent budgets who value what expert design and brand consultation can do for their sales. These are the smart ones who are usually at the top of their game.

When a client requests spec creative, he/she does should know that the very best likely will not participate. Clients do not need to be saved from themselves by designers on the free pitching issue. Clients might chose to seek better ways to hire a design firm, and designers might seek to better understand how their decisions contribute to the free pitching problem.

Procurement professionals should be discouraged by the professional associations that accredit them from asking any vendor for free products or services as a means of hiring evaluation. The procurement profession can have a positive role to play instead of furthering the commoditization of the product they are buying and driving unnecessary costs into the process. They possess the power to lead clients and forge progress on this issue. That same company would probably never dream of asking a lawyer to write them a contract for free. Designers are professionals, just like a lawyer. It takes time to design a logo, a Website, a brochure, and designers deserve to be paid for their time. Design time disappears into a black hole. Since there’s no contract setting boundaries, client wants to get it “just right” and can demand virtually unlimited revisions,
for free! In the meantime, designer could be spending those extra hours marketing their business and making real money.

While substantial progress is possible, there is no happy ending for everybody. Market forces will prevail. Design firms will be pushed out of business. Designers will be forced into other careers if unenlightened clients continue to ask for speculative work – often when they already know who they are going to work with before they ask for the pitch from a number of agencies. The smarter, better firms (like Artefact )will rise above and let the others squabble while we continue to win projects without free pitching.

Why spec work doesn’t work?

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