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Op/ed: To work on spec, or not?


By Scott Harris on June 21, 2013

I recently had a fascinating and illustrative new business meeting. I received a call from the owner of a small chain of restaurants who wanted to meet to discuss our getting involved in his marketing. Not surprisingly, we met at one of his restaurants.

He was immediately interested in our creative capabilities, so we discussed my staff and their experience and I shared some of our recent work. He was intrigued enough to continue the conversation, one he was having (understandably so) with other agencies.

The next thing he asked for was some spec work. Spec (short for speculative) work is a euphemism for “free” work. It means he wanted us to invest our time in developing a campaign and once he sees the campaign, he’ll decide if he likes it enough to actually hire (i.e., pay) us, or if he’ll continue his search with other firms and we eat the time that we’ve invested. All the risk is on us, none on him.

I explained to him that we don’t usually do spec work, for the obvious reason that we cannot afford to work for free. He suggested that it was worth the investment to me on the chance that we would get the work from him. In these situations, I have always tried to reverse the scenario with the other person, so they can see what a poor business model it is — and the restaurant was a perfect setting.

I had already shared with the owner that I had not previously visited any of his restaurants. Coincidentally, I was entertaining 10 people for dinner the following night; I asked him if it would be okay for me to bring everyone to his restaurant, enjoy a great meal and some fine wine. He of course said yes. I then asked if it would be okay if we didn’t pay. He was taken aback and didn’t get it at first. I explained that I had never eaten here before and wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it or not.

However, if the first meal went well, there was a chance I would come back again. No promises or commitments, but a chance. He replied that he’d go out of business if he ran his restaurants that way. As politely as I could, I asked him why he thought I should run my business that way?

We put aside the issue of payment for a bit and moved on to discussing the actual creative. I asked him for some parameters of what he liked and didn’t like. He responded, as others have in the past, that he didn’t want to give me any suggestions or direction but preferred to see “what I came up with.”

At about this time, one of his waiters came by to take our order. When asked for mine, I simply responded with “Bring me something, anything. If I like it, great. If not, I’ll send it back and you can try again, until we find something I like.” The waiter didn’t understand, but this time the restaurant owner caught on immediately.

We won’t be working with this particular restaurant chain. While he understood the concepts relative to his businesses, he did not extend that understanding to mine, and that is always a red flag in any business relationship. For spec work to, well, work, the opportunity has to be an excellent one, and there needs to be mutual understanding and respect between the two parties. It doesn’t mean paid work is a guarantee, but the few times I have agreed to spec work within the last 30 years, I’ve had tremendous respect for the client and every confidence that their decision would be made with integrity and thoughtfulness, not out of trying to get a free ride.

As for the restaurant owner, I think he’s still trying to find agencies that are willing to do spec work — betting on the come, if you will. There are occasions for businesses to agree to spec work and it really makes sense — you might be having a profit surplus and can take the risk, or the potential client/campaign is something you’re passionate about, or you’re just starting up and need to build up your reputation. But I’ve found these opportunities to be fewer and farther between than those requesting it would expect.

And if you’re the one asking for the spec work, I hope you’ll take a moment and think about what you’re asking and how it might feel if the same was asked of you and your business model. And for what it’s worth, lunch was terrible and I wouldn’t go back.

• Scott Harris is the owner of Thousand Oaks-based Mustang Marketing, a marketing agency serving Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley. Contact him at Harris at scott@mustangmktg.com.