Just Say No to Spec Work image

Responding to RFPs Requiring Spec Work: Just Say NO!

Back in 2015, I came across a video on social media that truly captured my attention. This video was intriguing to me for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, because it exposed so clearly the ridiculousness of the anachronistic practice of asking for spec work – uncompensated, actual creative work provided in an effort to “prove” to a prospective client that your agency can solve their problems, prior to, and without any guarantee of, an actual financial engagement. The other reason I was intrigued: although many creative professionals fight this fight on a daily basis, why did it take so long for one of us to illustrate in a video how absurd this practice really is?

Unfortunately, here we are nine years later, and this practice is still ongoing. And, it really needs to stop. So, listen up, fellow agencies and prospective clients alike. This video, and its reason for being, will benefit us all.

Analogies unequivocally illustrate the problem

The video, created by advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, depicts a guy who approaches various real business owners and asks them to provide their product or perform their service for free so he can determine if he likes it enough to consider paying for it. With RFP in hand, he approaches the owner of a custom framing shop, an architect, a personal trainer, a coffee shop owner and the owner of a Greek diner.

Representing a customer (or “client”), he uses language quite familiar to all of us as he describes the RFP process, with seemingly genuine reactions from the business owners, ranging from perplexed to astonished to downright angry.

Zulu Alpha Kilo, who made the video for the annual Agency of the Year event held by Strategy magazine, outlined their staunch position on pitching clients who ask for free spec creative work, referring to their perspective as unconventional for a start up agency. They went on to say that it didn’t hurt them at all to walk away from RFPs requiring spec work. In fact, they had experienced considerable growth despite their decision. What I really love is the fact that they didn’t focus solely on why spec work is bad for agencies. They had taken the time to highlight why it’s bad for clients as well, which you can still read here.

Last October, Design Force, Inc. celebrated its 34th anniversary. Over the course of our existence, we’ve been fortunate enough to have influenced the growth of many of the leading global brands in the toy and entertainment industries. Throughout our history, most of our clients have acknowledged our expertise and have respected our experience enough to work with us in the right way – by engaging us first. However, working with large consumer product manufacturers means that the RFP process will rear its ugly head from time to time. When we became tired of wasting time, money and resources while giving away our thinking with no guarantee that our efforts would translate to revenue for our design consultancy, we began to say no.

Emphatically, NO.

How to say “no” and maintain integrity

Once we came to the conclusion that we would decline participation if an RFP required spec work, we needed to determine how, exactly, to say no. Obviously, this response needed some intelligent rationalization. To paraphrase the advice of Blair Enns, agency business development expert and founder of Win Without Pitching, this is how we would typically respond:

At Design Force, Inc., we don’t begin to solve our clients’ problems without first being financially engaged. The concept of doing creative work in an effort to secure an engagement is against our policy as it undermines the value of what we do. Our pre-design research and design development processes are our highest valued products. If we demonstrate that WE don’t value them by giving them away without proper compensation, our clients will certainly not value them.

This typically raises the question (which was perfectly portrayed in Zulu’s video), “Then how do you get prospective clients to overcome the uncertainty of whether or not your firm is the best choice?” To this, we would say:

What we do, instead of giving away our highest valued products, is present case studies to illustrate how we’ve successfully helped our clients refresh their brands’ packaging, or how we’ve developed successful creative strategies for their properties’ licensing programs. The prospective client then sees the value of our defined way of working, and recognizes that our process and our more than three decades’ worth of experience will provide them with the best solutions for their problems.

Design is a profession. Our products are uniquely crafted, one-of-a-kind solutions created through a defined process. We’re not making widgets or producing commodities that compete on price based on supply and demand. The RFP process often tries hard to commoditize what we do in many ways – the worst of which, by far, is suggesting that we compete for business by giving away our expertise for free. As Zulu had illustrated so perfectly many years ago, this is unacceptable in any other industry. Not even the representative of the company initiating the RFP would work for free. So, why should we as design professionals EVER consider doing so?

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