The waste of spec work

The Request for Proposal: It has been a staple of the advertising and graphic design new-business world since Madison Avenue was a two-horse dirt lane. For agencies and design firms that create advertising and marketing for corporations and the myriad city, state and federal governments, the RFP has been a means of gaining, retaining and losing business for decades.

If you’re involved with the framing of your company or organization’s RFP as part of an agency or design firm search, I empathize. Accurately assessing, defining and then detailing near and long-term advertising and marketing requirements is a lot of peering into the crystal orb. It’s no small issue to create a document that succinctly pairs down your marketing needs so that you can evaluate respondents in a rational, calculated method.

If your RFP welcomes invitees to submit speculative – spec – work, here are a few thoughts contrary to the traditional “show us your knees” practice of presenting ball-parked spec creative as part of the evaluation process. It will hopefully make your life less tumultuous and result in a better long-term fit between your company and your new agency or design firm.

Spec is…
Spec work is the advertising and graphic design creative product an agency or design firm develops based upon traditionally skeletal client input. Skeletal meaning the RFP usually includes limited market research (proprietary research isn’t included for competitive reasons or simply isn’t available); organizational history; prior marketing situations; and sundry other background details. But it’s usually lacking any real meat. If you’ve prepared an RFP, you know the restrictions: your hands are tied in so many ways. All that an agency really has to go on is previous category experience (hopefully); secondary research gleaned from various sources (the same data the other competing agencies are hashing over); and lots of speculation. The questioning looks that circle the war room as the account execs, copywriters, art directors and media buyers attempt to divine the real problems would make a layperson giggle. No “real” information is available; therefore there is only opportunity for assumption. And error. Vast opportunity for error.

So the agency people make a brave go at it and create work based upon their assumptions. It’s usually very sexy, very edgy work. Work that will never, ever, ever will see the light of day. Ever. Because it’s so off base and ill founded. Weighting the selection of an agency or design house based largely upon spec creative is akin to choosing the blond chick because she looks oh-so-good in that red sweater and those tights.

Out with Spec, in With Real
Solution: Scratch the spec work line item from the RFP. Spend real time researching your pool of agencies. Dig for character, not a pick up line.

Previous work for other clients speaks volumes. And it’s work that’s founded on real research, real target audiences and real problem solving in a real-world scenario. Portfolio work (be certain it’s work that has actually run) enlightens greatly.

Then get personal. Spend focused time interviewing senior and day-to-day management about their strategic thinking process, shared values, senior management commitment, chemistry and so on. Bone-up on management’s social network pages. How does the agency address conflict? Are they proactive or do they look to you to determine direction for late-breaking opportunities or threats? Recon for visual cues, too. Tour the agency, as it will physically indicate the personalities that inhabit the space.

Finally, interview peers who’ve worked with the agency and you’ll get an unvarnished sense of the firm’s working style and whether they indeed are all that they promise.

In effect, you are getting a deeper look at the “whole person,” not just what they are wearing that day. And you’ll be able to make a much more sound decision based upon practical due diligence. The net result is a relationship that goes well beyond spec work’s fleeting aroma of cheap perfume.

Greg Fine

As a principal, creative director and head of business development for Ding Communications, Greg is responsible for shaping and forming the advertising and marketing for an array of clients. Those businesses include prominent financial institutions and money advisors; large and small medical practices and care facilities; regional tourism and hospitality bureaus; commercial and residential real estate and title firms; and a host of non-profits. A native Nevadan and graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno (BA Journalism), his focus has always been marketing centric. Leading up to the opening of Ding Communications, he freelanced for several prominent regional advertising agencies. Prior to that, he was a copywriter for the San Francisco Chronicle/SF Examiner marketing department; and served as publicist for both the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority and Harrah's Lake Tahoe. Greg's two daughters have been responsible for his hair loss, but he accepts that. And his wife, Shelli, manages the firm's financial reins. In off-duty hours, Greg rides his mountain bike around the hundreds of miles of single track surrounding Reno and Lake Tahoe. Winter finds him wandering the same mountains, but on skis. He is a founding member and actively involved in the K-8 Wellness Initiative, an all-volunteer committee dedicated to helping Washoe County Schools foster and adopt daily physical education and nutritional practices for its students to prevent obesity. He serves in advisory role to Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful, an organization dedicated to making the Truckee Meadows "America's Cleanest Community." And finally, he sits on the board for the Girl Scouts of the Sierra Nevada.
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