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“Spec” Surgery? Not on Your Life

There isn’t much out there that surprises me anymore, but in this crazy business of ours, doing speculative creative still gets my underwear in a knot. Would you ever hire a painter to paint your entire house without paying them something up front? Or ask a plastic surgeon to give you the works – fix your crooked nose, lift your eyes, maybe a collagen injection or two – but only reach for the AmEx if you’re thrilled with what you see in the mirror when he’s done? And if you don’t like it, ask him to start over again in an attempt to win your future business?

I assume not (but I’ve been wrong before). So why is it so easy for potential clients to ask for free creative?

Our brainpower and creativity is our livelihood. It’s what makes an ad agency an ad agency. It’s our primary asset and it pisses me off when people expect us to give it away for free.

There are so many agencies out there just waiting for the phone to ring; they would give away their firstborn to have a chance at a piece of new business. And all I want to say to them is “BE PROFESSIONAL.” Stop giving away the store: it cheapens your product. But until every agency says NO to spec creative, it will never end and potential clients will keep asking.

To the advertisers out there that love to kick the tires, put people in motion and get that free creative, I’d suggest that you can still get a good idea of what an agency can do for you in a few simple steps – without asking for spec creative:

  1. Review their portfolios. You contacted a specific agency because of its people or body of work. Chances are if they did killer creative once, they can do it again – for you.
  2. Invite them in for a chemistry check. Or better yet, check out their facility and make sure they aren’t working out of their basement.
  3. Check their references. Yes, everyone talks a great game, but ask their clients. How long have you worked together, and have you seen sustained growth? Chances are if they’ve done it for them, they can do it for you (sound familiar?).
  4. Have faith. You have to believe in yourself and your ability to make the right decision, much like when you get married. I know there are still a few die-hards who believe “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” but you know where I’m going with this!

So here I sit, pondering a realistic solution for this problem, and come to the conclusion that I may have to get used to that underwear in a knot feeling. Unless someone out there in advertising land has a suggestion . . . (I’m all ears). In the meantime, anyone know a good plastic surgeon who’ll work on “spec?”


Chief Executive Officer


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