Getting Off the Spec Cycle

ADC Member's viral video begins an industry conversation about creative spec work

A few weeks ago, the creative community stood up and took notice of a two-minute viral video created by Toronto-based creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo. In it, an amicable gentleman asks various business owners if they’d offer their wares and services on “spec”. Naturally the people were appalled, but as anyone who works in advertising can tell you, spec creative — being asked to conceive, create and give away creative work to prospective clients for free in hopes of winning the business — is sadly very common. Everybody says they hate it, and it eats up time, money and resources that may never be recouped, but yet still it remains part of the process of running a business.

We chatted with Zak Mroueh, Zulu Alpha Kilo’s Founder & Chief Creative Officer (and card-carrying ADC Member), and had him open up about not only why he believes spec work is bad for business (the viral video and accompanying interview already does a great job of that) but why it exists in the first place and why it continues to thrive against the better nature of most creatives.

You’ve done a fantastic job of stating why advertising agenci­­es and other cre­ative companies shouldn’t do spec work, and you’ll get very few people who will disagree with you. But yet not only does it still exist, spec work flourishes in our industry. Why? If it’s so wrong, and everyone ­­says it’s wrong, why is it still prevalent?


ZakMrouehThey’re still common because both agencies and clients simply don’t know any better. For agencies, it’s just the way it’s always been and no one has questioned it. For clients, they may only see the short-term gain of getting free ideas in a pitch versus the long-term benefit of choosing the right partner. The reality of spec pitches is that they are boardroom fabrications—a mediocre shop that invests heavily can look more eager and creatively stronger than it really is. Even when there’s a pitch without spec, some agencies sneak it in to impress the client. Agencies are the enablers. Clients have every right to push, but we’re the ones that say yes.

Spec pitches date back to the “Mad Men” era. Back then margins were much bigger and clients stayed with agencies for the long haul. Any money and creative effort that went into pitching spec work was easily made back over time. Today, margins are squeezed, with agencies, production houses and clients needing to do more with less. As costly as it is, expense isn’t my main concern. I think it’s in clients’ best interests to find the perfect partner in a pitch. Unfortunately, I’ve seen spec pitches do more harm than good as an agency evaluation tool.

The reality of spec pitches is that they are boardroom fabrications…”

Have you ever considered doing spec work?

When I started Zulu Alpha Kilo back in 2008, we did do a few spec pitches. We came out strong as a start-up at the beginning of the recession, winning the majority of our pitches. After winning a few major accounts early on, we made an unconventional decision to no longer participate in spec RFPs. I came to the realization that even when we won spec pitches it was never about who had the best work. We’d spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and expense on creative that would rarely see the light of day, except for one instance where our pitch idea was picked up globally. But even then, there was no compensation or recognition to the agency. Not even a thank you. After that, we adopted our no spec policy. We weren’t interested in playing the game anymore and were prepared to live with the consequences.

Any advice for an agency that is thinking about taking a no spec approach?

If you’re an agency leader, you have to ask yourself some very difficult questions. Are you prepared to live without the revenue? Are you okay with not growing? Quite often the answers to those questions are completely out of the agency’s hands. Most are owned by holding companies that have an obsession with growth. There’s constant pressure to win new business, open new offices, or find new revenue streams. These days there’s also equal pressure to win major awards so you can win Network of the Year. This dual pressure can lead to poor decision making, leaving the leaders at these multinationals conflicted at times. We knew the kinds of clients we would attract with this stance would be the ones who respect and value great partnerships. Could we be bigger? Absolutely. But we’ve still continued to grow, winning some of Canada’s most coveted and smart clients.

“If you’re an agency leader, you have to ask yourself some very difficult questions. Are you prepared to live without the revenue? Are you okay with not growing?”

What about clients? You can’t have that heart-to-heart with everybody, so what advice would you give to those who are looking for a better way?

To be clear, we’re not anti-client. Clients are the very reason we exist. We love our clients. None of Zulu’s current clients asked us to pitch spec work to win their business. My personal goal is to help change the process to better educate and help future clients. Since our video went viral, numerous pitch consultants around the world have asked if they can share it to help educate their clients.

One thing I do tell potential clients who have asked us to present spec creative is that they are going to find the creative pitch process confusing. Every agency is going to put their best foot forward, staffing up heavily for the pitch to ensure the creative work wows them. It may be hard to pick a clear winner based on the work. It usually comes down to other factors, resulting in a colossal waste of resources, time and energy. In my opinion, it’s an unnecessary boardroom exercise.

Here are the questions I’d advise a client to ask themselves: Do you want an agency that’s focused on your business or one that diverts the resources you pay for to fuel new business? Do you want the real team that’s going to work on your business or do you want to evaluate the work of talented freelancers who have probably been brought in as hired guns? Do you really believe the agencies pitching are going to risk showing you groundbreaking, game-changing ideas versus work that will simply win them the business?

Finally, I would encourage clients to choose their new agency based on who has the most proven track record of brilliant work. Which shop did you have the best chemistry with? And I would tell them to do the old fashioned thing—check references with other clients.

When we shared your original #SayNoToSpec video and article with the world, a lone voiced mentioned that spec work might be acceptable if you’re a kid just starting out. That brings up a related issue that always gets creative going: free work for ‘exposure’. What is your take on that?

No one can criticize anyone for doing something “for exposure”, whether it’s a new start-up agency or a fresh-faced young creative. The difference is that it is a choice that they’ve made instead of one that’s been dictated through an RFP. The only tricky part is if you offer up free work to real, prospective clients, you do sell yourself short, fuelling the perception that the service you provide has no value. If you are going to work for free, channel your creativity towards a worthwhile cause or charity.

“No one can criticize anyone for doing something “for exposure”, whether it’s a new start-up agency or a fresh-faced young creative.”

Saying no to spec was a personal choice for us. In a weird way, it’s become our point of difference. Funny thing is, even clients we’ve turned away still respect our position. Over the years, some have returned with a real brief.

Although our ‘Say No To Spec’ video has hit a nerve in other creative industries, the reason we did it is to help agencies and clients see spec work for what it is. One day when spec RFPs are long gone, we’ll all see the true value of long-term creative partnerships. And clients will finally get what they’ve always wanted—more value, more passion and more compelling ideas for their brands.

Agency: Zulu Alpha Kilo
Creative Director: Zak Mroueh
Art Director: Guilherme Bermejo
Writer: Nick Doerr
Producer: Tara Handley/Daniel Kaplan
Production House: zulubot
Director: Zak Mroueh
Director of Photography: Albert Huh/Alex Oktan
Casting Director: Shasta Lutz
Actor: Chris Locke
Video Post Facility / Editing Company: zulubot
Editor: Mike Headford / Jay Baker
Colourist/Transfer: Roslyn Di Sisto/Smith
Audio Post Facility/Music House: zulubot
Sound Mixer- Ian Reynolds
Engineer: Stephen Stepanic

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