Seriously, How is Spec Work Still a Thing?

Speculative work is a bad bet, both from the point of view of a creative and from that of an entrepreneur. Asking people to do free work (or doing that work yourself) is rarely the most effective way to move a project forward — and yet I keep seeing calls for spec work.

I would like to think most people understand that spec work isn’t an effective option, but that’s clearly not the case. The best I can do is to continue to refuse to do spec work and to try to convince you to take the same stand.

My Time is My Money

As a creative, a request to submit spec work is disheartening. Your ability to land paying work is based on your ability to win a contest. It’s like hearing that every piece of work in your portfolio is worthless: that your body of past work doesn’t actually prove you’re capable of completing a project. Personally, I find such requests irritating at best. I prefer to assume that suggestions I work on spec are attempts to get me to work for free, because I’d rather be angry than to think that a prospective client doesn’t believe I’m capable of the project in question.

Either way, though, spec work is a clear indicator that a prospective client doesn’t value my time. That worries me because my income is directly tied to the number of hours I can spend on paying work. Despite what these clients seem to think, I’m not working just to have something to do during the day — I need to earn a living. There’s a price tag on every hour in my day.

That lack of respect for my time is worse when a prospective client asks you in person or on the phone. I’ll admit to occasionally ignoring emails asking for a trial post or some examples on spec — ignoring an email is easy. But when someone asks me for a trial post during a phone call, the question trips me up: I’ve set aside time out of my day to talk to this person (time I’m not being paid for), and they want even more of that scarce resource? It gets worse when you consider the amount of unpaid work that can go into pitching a project before you can guess whether you’ll get the gig, like writing proposals and query letters.

A request for spec work in the moment forces me to keep my cool on an issue that actually makes me pretty angry, while talking to someone I hope to impress. Worse, it puts me in a position where I look like I don’t want to work on a project right off the bat. I’m willing to dig in my heels now, but there have been times in the past where I needed the work badly enough to back down.

I’ve always regretted those times, though: perhaps one spec project out of every ten has turned into paying work. And that number is only as high as it is because I’m counting those articles I wrote for publications that refused them, but that I was able to sell elsewhere. Stock article sites will take anything, it turns out, but they pay a fraction of what I would have earned if I had spent that time pitching projects that wouldn’t be done on spec.

Spec Work Means Useless Effort From Everyone

As bad as spec work is from a creative’s perspective, though, it’s a bad business practice for clients as well. It’s time-intensive and requires far more coordination than any other approach to handing out client work.

The source of this particular rant was a conversation with a prospective client, where the individual on the other end of the phone made it clear that they were talking to quite a few different bloggers at this point, implying more than ten. The phone call was being used to winnow down the numbers of respondents. That information is irritating, if only because I’m a big believer in the value of time (I categorize more than five interviews for a contract like this as “doing it wrong”). But then the interviewer said that they were asking allthe bloggers they were considering to provided a trial post.

EXCUSE ME?

I can understand asking for two or three bloggers to put together trial posts, so that you can tell the real differences between a few really good writers. I don’t agree with that approach, but I can understand it. But asking ten or more potential contractors to put together free work is ridiculous on multiple levels:

  • On a purely selfish level, asking for that much work means that you have to go through the results. Even ten short blog posts work out to a lot of reading.
  • Your network will likely suffer. You’re going to irritate people who you might want to work with in the future by asking them for free work and then turning them down for the overall project.
  • You’re taking advantage of people who you need to continue to do their best for you long after they turn in that first post. You’re not exactly starting your relationship off with your best foot forward.

Even when a creative will do spec work, a client probably won’t get the ideal end result. Most spec work projects aren’t perfect because there’s no way to get the sort of back-and-forth collaboration that ensures a client gets what they want. Writing a creative brief that addresses every nuance of a project is impossible — but so is answering project questions from a dozen different creatives. As a result, spec work is more like a sketch than a finished project, even though many people will request spec work with the expectation that they’ll get something they can use right away.

What’s the Practical Alternative?

Running a business is always a question of deciding how to most effectively spend your time. If you’re not careful, a creative project can be a crazy time suck that doesn’t get you the results you need (whether you’re doing the work or commissioning it). So, how can creatives and clients work together without wasting time?

The Client Side of the Equation: There are three factors that will tell you whether you’ll get the results you want far more effectively than asking a creative to do the work on spec.

  • Reputation
  • Communication skills
  • Past work
    Seeing a creative’s portfolio should tell you whether that creative is capable of the level and style of work you need. From there, you need to know whether that creative can do the work in a professional manner in terms of timeliness and responsiveness to criticism. You can get that information from talking to the creative’s past clients — send ten quick emails, rather than trying to go through ten speculative projects. Here, I’ll even give you a template to copy:

So and so,
Creative X has a piece of work in her portfolio that she did for your company. I’m considering hiring her for a project of my own and I was hoping to get your opinion of Creative X’s work. Could you answer a few questions for me?
How was Creative X to work with?
Did Creative X complete the project in a timely fashion?
Would you work with Creative X again?
Thanks!

You can usually find the email addresses you need on websites or LinkedIn. You don’t even need to go through the creative you’re checking up on.

The Creative Side of the Equation: Give prospective clients your portfolio. It should stand on its own. If your portfolio isn’t effective, invest the time you would otherwise spend on spec work into improving your portfolio. Given how inexpensive it is to put work up online, consider just launching some projects of your own. Write your own blog, launch your own web app, or design your own line of motivational posters. If that scares you, here are a few other options:

  • Do pro bono work for a cause you believe in.
  • Create stock work for the many marketplaces online (most have lists of types of work that are most in demand).
  • Offer yourself as an intern or apprentice (paid) to a creative already working in the industry who does a high volume of work.

Avoid Spec Work, Please

Spec work is bad for business, whether you’re a creative or a client (or both). Tempting as the idea may be, either as a way to get in with a new client or as a way to see a bunch of work from different creatives, just say ‘no.’ There are always better ways to get what you want.

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