It’s time to put an end to free spec work

Morgan Smith's Layout avatar

Speculative work, AKA work done for free, is objectively a bad thing. But for some reason, professionals in the creative field get asked to offer it all the time. Clients see it as a “chance to see what you can do for us,” or “an opportunity to see how we work together.” And the client is always right, right?

In this case, no. Not at all.

Ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo released a video of real people (outside of the design/ad/creative world) being asked to do speculative work. The common reaction? That would be absolutely crazy; why would they ever offer their services for free?

If they don’t, why do designers?

A woman with long hair in a white shirt with black flowers faces away from the camera toward a white wall

Why spec work is bad (for everybody)

There’s this strange misconception in the creative world that customers should get a trial period with creatives, to see if they’re the right fit. But with no other business do you have that freedom to pick and choose before paying somebody for their time. When a designer or agency agrees to do spec work, not only are they not making money, but they’re losing money. That time should instead be spent on billable, current customers, not potential leads that could (and likely will) fall through.

And the client requesting the spec work is losing out also. Creative genius happens when the designer and client work together to solve the problem. Without that time to understand each other and collaborate, spec work usually results in a sloppy and poorly thought-out solution.

Read more about why spec work is bad for the designer and client in this article by Con Kennedy.

a man and a woman sit on a curb; the woman holds her head in her hands

What to do instead of spec work

The only way to put an end to spec work is to stop doing it. For some designers or agencies, if you are currently offering spec work, that can be easier said than done. But I promise you can find plenty of clients without sacrificing payment. The next time a potential client comes knocking on your door asking for spec work, try these alternative techniques to seal the deal.

Direct them to your portfolio

Instead of spending non-billable time creating spec work, direct the potential client to your portfolio. Assuming your portfolio showcases a variety of your best work, at least one project should resonate with them.

You can also use what you know about the client’s project to tailor how you talk about your portfolio. Point out similar color schemes, suggest potential layouts, anything that can make your portfolio feel more personal to their own project.

Provide references or testimonials

If they’re looking for spec work to see what it’s like to work with you, provide them references or testimonials instead. Explain that spec work is not part of your onboarding process, but if they’d like to know more about working with you, they can contact your past or current clients X, Y, and Z (who will give you glowing recommendations).

Even if they don’t follow through contacting your references, providing testimonials like this demonstrates that you’re confident in your work and your relationship with your clients.

Move on to other clients

If a client is still insistent on spec work, then they might not be a client that you want. Think about it: If you’ve already tried to explain that you’re against free work and they’re still demanding it, they’re probably not going to listen to you later in the project. By weeding these clients out now, you’re saving yourself some headaches down the road. Plus, this gives you more time to take on awesome clients that you love working with. It’s a win-win, really!

a person wearing brown boots walks outside on wet pavement

Imagine if every creative said no to spec work. Clients would stop expecting it, just like they don’t expect it from other businesses.“It’s time to take a stand and put an end to this silly tradition. No one should have to work for free. ”

What do you do when clients ask you for free work? Or how do you encourage your colleagues to turn down spec work? Share your experiences below to help your fellow creatives put an end to the practice for good.

Comments ( 1 )

  1. Abbey Fitzgerald

    November 9, 2015

    Amen! I'm always surprised when I get requests for spec work. I don't know any other industry that where this would be acceptable. I don't ask my mechanic to fix my breaks and then decide to pay him if I think he did a good job.

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