When ad agencies pitch for new pieces of business, they are often asked to provide what we call “spec work”, in other words speculative strategic thinking and creative ideation. Only once in my career have I seen a client offer to pay for this work as part of their agency search process. We are asked to do it for free. And fair enough, agencies are willing to do it.
This continues to be standard practice. It’s not just work you are giving away, it’s often your best work. If you’re serious about winning the business, you put your best minds on the job and you work your tail off even more than usual because it’s a competition against other agencies.
This takes you away from the business of servicing your existing clients to the best of your ability, a most unfortunate side-effect.
It also ties up your teams, plays havoc with their personal lives and costs the agency a small fortune. I have been involved in a speculative pitch that cost our agency $30,000.
Pitches of this nature are becoming more competitive all the time as the marketing world continues to fragment and specialized agencies pop up, leading businesses to engage multiple companies rather than keep it all with one shop. So the potential value of the business win is diminished. Last year we learned we had competed against 30 other companies from across Canada for a piece of work.
Some businesses even have their minds made up before the pitch, but the RFP (Request for Proposal) bid process is often corporate compliance. Agencies can go at it with the most sincere intentions of winning pitches that have already been decided before the RFP drops.
Is it sweet when you win? Yes of course. It forces you to raise the level of your game as a business to be competitive in these pitches – that’s a good thing.
Still, Copeland has stopped responding to RFPs that require speculative work. We want to reserve our best ideas for paying clients. We think every agency should do likewise, but all it would take is one hungry agency to break ranks and the whole show hits the fan again.
Corporate marketing departments aren’t the only fans of free work, as you will see in this brilliant Craigslist ad shared with me by Frank Ricketts of Dymarx in Halifax.
Funniest thing I’ve read in ages! Really, it’s time to stop feeding this beast.