NO!SPEC: Spec/Pitch work and strategy

Hear hear! Way to go NO!SPEC campaign people!

NO!SPEC is a campaign against speculative work, which is the practice of companies asking creative professionals, mostly designers, to produce work without getting paid and “pitch” for it, competition style, for a chance to get the project (or, sometimes, just to get paid if their work is used).

Traditionally, Ad agencies happily participate in the “pitch” practice, because their business structure allows them to subsidise concept creation and then make their big money off the full campaigns that they win and/or media commissions.
For designers, whether independent or small-mid-size agencies, this is just not sustainable.

I totally agree with the campaign’s claim: Spec work devalues the potential of design and ultimately does a disservice to the client.

From a strategic angle, an example that comes to mind is FMCG package design, an area of design where this practice is extremely common in the UK.

The nature of FMCG and product cycles means work is created under great time pressure to begin with, and because the agency participating in a pitch knows it might not get any money out of it, it is forced to condense the time spent on the pitch even further. The first component to suffer is often strategy.
On a none-pitch brand project, I’ll typically have anywhere between two to six weeks (often more, when research is involved) to devise a strategy for a typical corporate branding or new FMCG identity project ; at least one or two for the typical non-pitch packaging for an existing brand project. Additionally, if it’s a larger effort on the client’s side, I’ll sometimes have the budget to lead a bigger consultant team and involve my other colleagues and the client in the thinking process.
In agencies who “pitch as practice” it is common to have anywhere between one to three days for a single planner working on a strategy, regardless of the scale of the client’s effort. This style of work forces creative strategy to choose the first reasonably sounding idea that can drive the visual design work.

(industry semantics: if your title is “planner” you’re more likely to get less time, just because that title originates in the advertising industry and might reflect the heritage your agency is used to)

And here’s a scary thing for everybody involved with spec work: Even if you have more time for design after you win spec work, the fundamental strategy will rarely change, as it is perceived as one of the main reasons the project was one for. Most clients will perceive it as chosen, even validated.

While working as an independent consultant, often building creative teams for clients, I’ve always done my best to avoid asking designers for spec work. Instead, I organise credentials presentations, helping the client find a designer they like from a group of trusted professionals I like to work with.
My work over the last three years has been mostly with boutique agency Brandinstinct. We rarely participate in pitches. We have as close to a “no-spec” policy as I’ve ever seen in a branding agency. When we do participate, these are usually “paid pitches”, and we make sure the agencies are short-listed to begin with and that enough time is given to produce work at the standards we strive for. As a result, most of our FMCG packaging projects are not pitches.
When I look at the high ROI rates on many of our projects, frequently way beyond average results, I strongly believe this is because of having enough time for strategy makes a huge difference in the overall quality of the resulting design work and specifically in its effectives in the market, and I know the designers I work with agree.


Oh, and thinking about the no-spec approach reminded me why I’m against the way internship works in many companies, but on that – later.

2 thoughts on “NO!SPEC: Spec/Pitch work and strategy

  1. Great insight,
    but the profession of designer is right now submitted to higher pressure for very next future and even more later:
    Under the so called “co-creation” trend as a kute name as it has been presented online the recent launch of in Netherland, it exist other online platform which are claiming it under the hype name “crowdsourcing” activities. ( to logotournament, and 99designs, you will discover that the battle for creativity existance is becoming hard and harder, and it’s far to end during next months and/or later.
    No to worry, just became a client and outsource all of your “pitch” at the cost of few clicks and even shorter days. Marketing people like you will like to give a try cause it can be at such low-cost, so fast, and so many proposals that you will find it even addictive at least for your first draft and tests.

    You can then ask to one of your designer to finalize the stuff you really need πŸ™‚

    let’s call a dog a doc: this is clearly brokerage.
    And you find those little funny communities same designers even handling themselves the competitions, from both ends cause time running, they still look for average creation to propose to there little “clients”.
    Fake among real competitions,, sweet journalist again run in the PR process without testing the tool, and already making big titles out it,
    and thank to some a big name of one of the biggest ad agency.

    So what is next?
    please let me know why you need to justify yourself regarding your process and the way you handle it. I am a designer πŸ™‚ and will be happy to have a chat with you.


  2. Hi Olivier, thanks for this comment but this is not the subject of my post.
    This post was dealing with spec-work in the traditional sense and said why it wasn’t a sustainable model for creating successful results in the design industry.

    Crowd-sourcing, which you mention, produces mostly crap and was discussed and refuted at length on the no-spec blog, but this is not what the campaign or the post is mainly about.
    “Marketing people like me”? No. I would never go down that route. It’s just a sure way to waste time and get bad results. None of the marketing professionals I know would even consider it as more than a gimmick. AND it’s unethical because it exploits user’s time and creativity for peanuts. If this is brokerage, it is unethical exploitive brokerage.

    What is next? I don’t think crowd-sourcing hurts the core of the industry. But spec work does – in the post i just gave one angle, but there are many more on the campaign site.


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