New thinking: Spec is not evil.

If you do it for the right reason, a spec pitch is a good thing, win or lose.

I’m constantly having my preconceived ideas challenged. And one very strong preconceived belief that was recently ripped from my consciousness is the idea that spec creative pitches are bad.

As the conventional wisdom, and my post from August 2015 goes, asking an agency to give their work away doing spec is troubling. As I wrote then:

Why would anyone want to kick off a business relationship with a requirement that one partner gives away a big chunk of its product and intellectual property for free? Is that any way to build trust and respect on either side? Like personal relationships, business relationships founded on imbalance are often destined to end badly.

But I may have been wrong. Or, rather, I’ve changed my mind a bit. Where I once saw imbalance, now I see a wealth of benefits for the agency. I now believe there are good reasons for a prospective client to ask an ad agency to do spec and plenty of good reasons for that agency to jump into such pitches willingly and happily.

What changed my mind? Well, one thing that really turned my head around was a pitch we were in recently that we won, having done spec creative. I’m not sure the client would have chosen us based solely on our strategy, capabilities and winning personalities. It felt like they really needed to see how juiced we were to learn about their product and work in their category. And it worked like magic.

Another event that changed my mind was a spec pitch we did not win. Despite working our asses off and impressing the client with the work we created (work that still hangs on our cork boards) we did not walk away with the business. The thing we did walk away with was knowledge. Our understanding of influencers and buyers shot up as a result of working with this client on the pitch. And months after not winning, we still often point to this pitch as an example of doing things the right way.

The third event that changed my mind was attending the One Club Creative Leaders Retreat this February. Specifically, Glen Cole of 72 and Sunny gave a talk about how they pitch new business. And at the top he said, “You can look at it as giving your work away, or you can look at it as an opportunity to learn something interesting that you don’t know.” His point: when you learn, even if you lose, you win. It was a pretty powerful ah-ha moment for me. It reminds me of a quote from Stephen Pressfield’s, The War of Art:

“The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.”

Of course, if one jumps into all the pitches one can and loses, all the learning in the world isn’t going to put braised short rib on the table. So it still pays to have a reasonable expectation of winning before committing a team to burn up a week’s worth of otherwise-billable time and braincells.

Otherwise, I’m in.


Grant Sanders in the Creative Director at Mintz + Hoke Advertising in Avon, CT. When he’s not there combusting hours and neurons, he’s usually on Nantucket where he lives with his kindergarten-teacher wife and black dog named Seven.

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