Friday, July 10, 2009

SPEC: A four letter word.

Ad folks love to hate spec work, and to be honest, so do I.

However, a colleague of mine recently ranted on the subject in his blog, and now I just have to chime in. It's one thing to hate spec, but let's face it—it's a reality. The trick is, how do we as creatives play the spec game to win?

Let us define spec. Essentially, it's free creative work done by a writer, designer or agency/studio. Make a clear distinction between the two usual types, though:

- Type 1 is spec work done by individuals to demonstrate their abilities on larger projects they may not otherwise have the chance to work on.

- Type 2 is done by an agency or studio on the behalf of a client request, and in hopes of gaining real paying work from said client.

It's important to make these differences clear, and I'll tell you why.

In the case of Type 2, (agency/studio for client) I feel strongly that this is nothing more than an abusive situation. The client has the carrot, and they dangle it for all it's worth. They say, "Alright creatives; you want my yummy orange bounty? Then dance for it. Dance!"
And dance we do. Over and over again, proving nothing, and building no body of work.

In the case of Type 1, (individually to flex muscles) I feel there can be a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way, essentially, is choosing your favourite brand, and just toodling off on some giant creative wank-fest that shows no strategy, or real world application. This sort of stuff will impress the odd Creative Director, but does a piss-poor job of being relevant to any actual work you'll have to do in future.

So what's the right way? Well, first you need a real client. That's right. Good spec work still needs a client. One with a pulse. There are tons of cause-based organizations that are short on money, and high on morality. Environmental groups, humane societies, The Hair Club for Men, whatever. Call 'em up, and ask them if they want a free ad campaign. 10 to 1 they say "yes". They buy the media, you create the ad. The hitch is: you retain creative control. Sure, they can have some input, but you get the hammer—the final say. What this accomplishes, is the chance for individuals to bolster their own portfolios (with real, meaningful, work) in a way that truly expresses their style. Not the Account Manager, not the client, but themselves.
Ultimately, this—their clearly expressed individuality—will get them to the next level.

Please don't get me wrong here; I know that dolling out free work devalues what we do. In a perfect work, we'd all get paid for every gig from the day we walk out of school to the day we pack it in to work on our lawn-bowling game.

However, keep this in mind: we created this condition.

This industry is built on breaking rules. It's centered on creative problem solving. If we all want to erase the spec work phenomenon, we need to apply rules.

Rules that may be seen as stifling.

Senior Creatives would have to judge Intermediates and Juniors only on the actual work that had been done for pay. That means books full of banner ads and 15 second radio scripts. Then, ALL Agencies (and I mean every last one of 'em) would have to commit to never present free work again. Never ever ever. They would have to be content to be judged by an exactly defined criteria. past work, credentials, etc.

So what do ya'll think? Agree? Disagree? Want to lynch me?

Chime in, or forever hold your pee.

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