I love spec work. Don't hate me

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As a creative director, Alec Beckett says he should naturally despise spec work. But he finds the 'who gives a crap' approach to it liberating

At recent industry event, I was asked what I thought about "spec work." Now, asking a creative director what he or she thinks about spec work is like asking a whale what he thinks about harpoons.

So I took that fastball down the middle and had a delicious little rant. I’m sure you know how it goes: "Spec work is an abomination! What other profession gives away the fruit of their labor for nothing? But worse than that, it’s just a waste of time and resources. How can a client expect an agency to solve their problems if they haven’t immersed themselves in the business and category? " And so on …

I enjoyed soaking in my self-righteous glow for a while, but something began gnawing at me. I had started thinking about our agency’s history with spec work, and it made me realize that my diatribe had one little flaw: It was kind of ... wrong.

Much of our agency’s most lauded and effective work was done purely on spec. And I found that realization very worrying.

After all, conventional wisdom is that spec is: 1. Evil, because we are being asked to give away our precious product for nothing. And 2. Ineffective, because we are expected to come up with clever solutions without the research, knowledge, insights and brand discovery that everyone knows is essential to landing on those crucial insights at the heart of all great campaigns.

But while the lack of remuneration is obviously a problem for the financial side of our business, I think it’s basically irrelevant to the creative process.

In fact — and here comes the blasphemy that will have our managing partner bludgeoning me with a stapler — it may actually help. Because with fees and contacts and retainers comes in-depth research, carefully constructed briefs, client meetings — in short, handcuffs. 

As soon as they write you a check, the dynamic changes. Of course, I’m not advocating for clients to stop writing checks. I enjoy feeding and clothing my children too much to do that. But I am asking if there is a way to keep that energizing, risk-taking, idea-rich environment alive even when the formal, financial relationship with a client has been established?

When you take on a spec assignment, you aren’t given money. You’re given something that may be even more valuable: freedom. When you give a group of creative people that kind of freedom it can be inspiring. It allows a kind of "who gives a crap" sense of irresponsibility that is exhilarating. Rather than get caught up in the minutiae of the brief and concern over whether the client will like something, we throw ourselves into a much simpler, more motivating task: come up with something we think is awesome.

We don’t know the tropes of the category. We don’t know the politics of their company. We don’t know the sacred cows of their brand. We haven’t interviewed the management team. We go at the problem pure — trying to make something amazing with little more knowledge than those consumers we are trying to win over.

In fact, as I looked back I realized there have been too many cases where the best work we did for a client was the very first work we did on spec — with virtually no input from them.

A good agency loves getting into the trenches with their clients and trying to solve their every day issues. But in the process you often lose that "here’s a crazy idea" intensity that the pitch process seems to generate.

So here’s what we’ve started to do. At least once a year we "pitch" for our current clients’ business. We are step out of the flow of projects. We pretend we’ve never met them. We set our creative teams free with a spec assignment — no budgets, no mandatories, no "remember the client doesn’t like red." It’s amazing how invigorating the exercise can be. Not just for our team but for our clients as well. It’s a reminder that more often than not, the ideas reflect the process. And if you want bold, unexpected, attention-getting ideas, you had better find a process that is designed to create them.

And as much as it pains me to admit it, the free-for-all, adrenaline-soaked spec process is a pretty decent way to do it.

Alec Beckett is creative director at Nail Communications.


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