Know When to Say No to Spec Work

Speculating On Gold: A Losing Proposition

In most industries the word “speculation” is synonymous with the word “risk”. Sure, it tries to paint itself as a pretty picture; a panoramic view of the best possible outcome. But those industries know the truth: it’s risky, unstable, and not worth it. So why, in the graphic design trade, do some treat speculation different?

We know and have worked alongside brilliant designers who regularly take on spec work. We’ve met countless young hopefuls who excited start out and take on spec work as their first number of projects. Is it simply a means to an end? Is it the best way to “get your feet wet” when you’re starting out? The answers are no and no.

Spec Work:

The practice of accepting a job without any guarantee of payment upon completion of the job.

It’s important to understand that spec work is not an appropriate strategy. Ever. It fails to manage the creative process. It hampers you from getting the most from your ad agency or design firm. Here’s why.

False Hope and Bad Business

Saying No to Spec Work

To the agency or firm, agreeing to spec work is about hope. Hope of getting a new account. Hope of walking down the proverbial Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City. Hope for big payoffs down that road. Ironically, provisions for compensation are rarely announced in advance. Meaning, spec work almost always results in lost revenues for the artist or the firm.

Businesses like to sugarcoat the acceptance of spec work as “a shot at stardom.” At Catapult Strategic Design, we just call it “bad business. Most creative industries would never consider doing work without a formal contract. Can you see an architect spend countless hours designing a beautiful building on mere speculation? Of course not! So why do so many ad agencies and design firms give away their ideas and intellectual property?

Ad agencies have been operating this way for years. Several agencies will pitch their ideas for an advertising campaign, hoping to land the contract. They justify it because the investment and risks are usually acceptable because the ongoing revenues from winning the account are so high. This isn’t the case for graphic designers. There generally are no media commissions or fees on the horizon. The job could be a “one-and-done” deal, or it could result in a few months of work. Either way, you have spent a lot of time on a potential project that might not pan out. It’s no wonder respected industry associations have long voiced warnings against this practice.

The Official Stance

Graphic Artists Guild’s, Pricing & Ethical Guidelines Handbook, reminds industry professionals that, “Speculative ventures, whether in financial markets or in the visual communications industries, are fraught with risk. Individuals who choose this course risk loss of capital and expenses…risk not being paid for the work, take valuable time from pursuing other paying assignments, and may incur un-reimbursed expenses.” ref.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies’ (AAAA) Standards of Practice states, “Unethical competitive practices in the advertising agency business lead to financial waste, dilution of service, diversion of manpower, loss of prestige, and tend to weaken public confidence…in the institution of advertising.” ref.

And finally, the American Institute of Graphic Artists’ (AIGA) Standards of Professional Practice (4.2) affirms, “A designer shall not undertake any speculative projects, either alone or in competition with other designers, for which compensation will only be received if a design is accepted or used. This applies not only to entire projects but also to preliminary schematic proposals.” ref.

Hearers and Doers of the Word

Despite the standards of practice, it can be difficult to be both “hearers and doers of the word.” What about when the economy is bad and companies are looking to boost their bottom-line? It seems marketing and advertising spending are the first on the chopping block in a bad economy. It’s tempting to agree to spec work in this, and many other types of scenarios. When you find the possibility of work, to pay the bills, to pay your people, it can be very tempting. Hope is a powerful thing, even more so for entrepreneurs and business owners!

But in the case of spec work, it will always be a zero-sum game. You need to be able to say no. Saying no is a reflection of your businesses maturity, not how busy you are. Avoiding spec work is not about restricting free trade, but about doing what is right for the industry.

A Case In Point: A Compromise for Concept Work That Doesn’t Feel Like Spec Work

Spec Work

This happened to us a number of years ago. The largest specialty pet-related retailer in the U.S. approached Catapult (you can guess who they are). They were redesigning their entire line of premium store brand pet foods. This would have been one of the largest pieces of business we had ever landed. This was a big deal and we were excited. Three firms were to present a proposal and their best ideas for project work that was to last several months. The catch? No compensation. We were to learn, discover, prepare, develop, and present concepts all on spec; on our own nickel and dime. Catapult Strategic Design refused (politely), explaining that we did not do spec work.

We then offered a win-win solution to the prospective client:

– Pay each firm $5,000 to develop initial design concepts that meet the general strategic goal.

– If Catapult won the contract, we would credit them $15,000 to cover the concept fees.

We were confident the other two firms would agree to these same terms. But the prospective client refused. Needless to say, we did not land the contract.

A year later, we bumped into the brand manager of this company and asked him about the project. He told us the company never actually executed the brand and package overhaul. In fact, it didn’t even get past the original concepts stage. Lesson reinforced; giving away your creative ideas for free is almost always a lose-lose proposition. So, why does one say no to spec work in the first place?

Here are three reasons to say no to spec work.

1. Branding is Strategic, Then Creative

We have spent 20+ years as marketing communication experts. We know how to prepare creative solutions for critical marketing issues. We work together with our clients and develop a marketing strategy. This strategic groundwork helps us to position a client’s visual communications for success. We have learned you can’t help any client if you don’t understand their business, their customers, or their competitors. Spec work is the exact opposite of being strategic. Remind potential clients that meeting their marketing objectives starts with a good strategy. Otherwise you are wasting valuable time, money, and energy.

2. Your Ideas Are Your Only Real Assets

A firm’s strategic ideas and creative solutions are their intellectual property. They are your most valuable assets. Like any accountant, financial planner, or even a software developer, these and so many other professionals, would never give away their time and talents on mere speculation. A firm’s ability to create and protect its ideas is analogous to a programmer’s source code. One’s success depends on selling these ideas. To give them away without compensation dilutes their inherent value.

3. Leverage Your Portfolio

Exploit Your Experience. Your portfolio, experience, and reputation in the marketplace should speak for itself. Underscore this to prospective businesses by presenting past work. Show them how your firm has helped other businesses and how you have provided value to them. Share outcomes when possible. Leverage your work to help them understand the process and any measured results of your firm’s work. Use your firm’s experience to help them envision what it can do for them.

Final Thoughts

Advertising and design agencies have a responsibility to elevate their work. Saying no to spec work requires conviction and may even result in lost, short-term revenue. Yet, saying no for the right reasons will help the entire industry.

If you’d like to work with our graphic design experts here at Catapult, give us a call at 602.381.0304 or email us at