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How to get off the spec merry-go-round

Posted on June 9, 2010 and read 2,402 times

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toms How to get off the spec merry go roundTom Shepansky
Partner, Managing Director
Rethink

Imagine you want a made-to-measure suit from one of the best tailors in the business.

The catch? You don’t let the tailor take your measurements or ask you what you like or dislike. If the tailor is very lucky, he’ll guess that you wanted a double-breasted blazer in navy with gold buttons. If not, you’ll pay him 20 bucks for his time and move on to the next shop.

Sound like a good way to make a suit? Or hire an architect, contractor or lawyer, for that matter? Just think what it would be like if we asked our dentist for a little “spec” work.

For decades, ad agency types have talked about the importance of our ideas as our most valuable asset. But the minute an important (and usually big) client calls, many will give away their best work for a hope and a prayer that one day they’ll be respected for their creative thinking.

The real irony is that most spec- in my experience, around 90 percent- never even gets produced. The whole system is absurd- and completely unsustainable.

Spec should be the exception, not the rule

Over the last 10 years we’ve actively tried to avoid doing spec work- and have in large measure succeeded. There have been a handful of pitches where we showed creative in very rough form- no storyboards, no animatics, just scribbles on paper. But we can count the occasions on one hand.

Our first line of defense is to try to explain to prospective clients the absurdity of the spec-creative circus. We point out that agencies eager to do spec for you will be just as eager to do spec for the next long-shot that comes along. That means the people you see in the pitch will probably not be very involved in running your day-to-day account- whatever they say during the pitch. In many ways, the spec system punishes clients who stay loyal and rewards clients who want to “shop around” every few years.

We know this first-hand. In our former lives at a big multinational agency, we spent half our time chasing new business, often at the expense of current, paying clients.

When we started our own company we vowed we’d rethink the way we approach things. We decided that our ongoing new business strategy would be to do amazing work for our existing clients- work that got talked about with customers and the press. Work that got results. These cases would in turn attract new clients looking for the same kind of results.

We would also try to maximize opportunities with existing clients, getting more of their business as we earned their trust. And leverage the power of referrals- which are much more effective than any long-shot pitch process. In fact, over the last decade, the vast majority of our new business has come from new projects with existing clients or simple referrals.

Saying no to spec has had other benefits as well. Having fewer creative presentations means our agency isn’t in continuous pitch crisis mode. We can save our best thinking for real, paying clients, instead of chasing after dogs and ponies.

Can the industry say no to spec?

As an industry, we need to change. And it takes more than a couple of voices to make change. It’s probably naïve to think that agencies would work together to ban spec.

Our approach is to lead by example, and to show that you can run a successful business without relying on spec. We may be left off a few lists, but we’re okay with that. Clients that expect spec are often the first to insist on creative reviews every three years, whether needed or not. We’d rather work with companies that value our time, effort and undivided attention.

Luckily, we’re seeing more and more prospective clients shying away from spec in favour of credentials pitches with relevant work and a point-of-view on their category and brand. They use these pitches to gauge chemistry and fit- which are just as important as case studies.

It’s a far better system. At least in our estimation. But what do you think? Is spec helping or hurting our industry? Is it truly evil or a necessary evil?And what strategies have you used to win new business that don’t involve spec?






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