Some speculation on speculative creative.

I love the creative process and if someone puts a cool brief in front of me, I’m in.

That’s how I work. Some of the most fun, from the standpoint of a creative person, can be had in speculative creative pitches. It’s a blast to compete against another shop. It’s energizing to see creative people swing for the fences, free from the normal limits day-to-day reality places on the work. The vibe is palpable within the walls of any agency where a big pitch is happening. It’s electric.

It’s also a little weird.

Here’s the weird thing. In my experience (three decades working with over 30 creative firms and well over 500 clients on tens of thousands of engagements), clients rarely use spec creative as a dominant criteria in their decision. The best client/agency relationships are founded on the chemistry between the client and agency (naturally). The other major deciding criteria: the ability of a particular firm to meet a client’s needs (also known as capabilities). So why is there so much emphasis on spec creative? Because clients want assurances. I get that.

Blair Enns, a consultant and ex-agency guy whose mantra is “avoid pitches, spec or otherwise” and whose blog is a wealth of great thinking once suggested that agencies should offer a money-back guarantee. This is a fantastic idea that is far easier spoken than executed. I don’t know a single agency owner (and I know dozens) who is fond of the idea of uncashing a check.

I once had a client ask me to write a bunch of radio spots for him for free, and if he liked them, he would pay for the ones he liked. I told him I did not do work for free, I sent him links to some really great radio I had written and told him, if he liked those, I would be happy to write him some radio spots that he would like just as much. And his rather rude reply was, “Well, what if they suck?”

I politely walked away from his business. Thing is, I could have agreed to his terms. I had worked successfully with demanding clients in the past. I knew this guy’s category inside and out. I know I could have written great spots for him and he would have approved them and I would have made money. Fortunately, this was at a point in my career when I could afford to turn some work down. And while the work I would have done for him would not have sucked, working with him would almost assuredly have sucked (the life out of me).

For me, the chemistry, the relationship, the pleasure of working together, is far more important than the promise of income. (This is why I’m a creative guy and not a money guy.)

Here’s another weird thing: 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.

That said, I love the creative process and if someone puts a cool brief in front of me, I’m in. Irony.


Grant Sanders is the Creative Director at Mintz + Hoke advertising in Avon, CT. He splits his time between Avon and Nantucket, MA. Often trying, but sometimes failing to strike a good balance.

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