RFPs – to spec or not to spec?

10 Apr

The last time I waded in on Request for Proposals, a passionate and sometimes cantankerous debate ensued in our comments section. Seems this is a hot spot for a lot of people in the biz, so once more unto the breach my friends.

What do you do when an RFP meets your criteria for success, but includes a requirement for speculative creative?

You can line up a lot of arguments on both sides but here’s where I fall: we won’t do it.

The best successes Copeland has had in the past few years have been the result of key insights that have popped up during strategic sessions with our clients:

> Suggesting the introduction of a Catalytic Mechanism to put teeth into Columbia Fuels’ RVP last fall. (11% redemption rate on offer to current customers)

> Discovering the plausible denial in potential hearing aid customers and finding a way around it for Island Hearing. (15% lift in national sales)

> Getting BC Ferries passengers to travel mid-week with a discounted fare. (10% increase in mid-week reservations)

The restrictive and formal nature of communication within the RFP process doesn’t allow for the level of conversation and exchange of ideas that we think leads to game-changing insights.

So we just say no.

If only there was solidarity amongst agencies against spec creative, the requirement for it would surely disappear from RFPs altogether!


5 Responses to “RFPs – to spec or not to spec?”

  1. Mario Parise April 12, 2010 at 6:43 am #

    We don’t do spec creative either. The first reason is we’re not allowed to, since our designers are all members of RGD Ontario, and that membership states they can’t do spec.

    But that’s really besides the point.

    The biggest reason I’m personally opposed to spec work, especially when it’s requested, is that it’s a huge red flag of things to come. The success of any agency is directly linked to the quality if the clients they attract. Clients who expect spec creative are not great clients. They’re cheap clients. They want lots of quantity for very little money. And more often than not, they’re the ones that will want to dictate every aspect of creative (begging the question, why don’t they do it themselves?).

    I’m not saying that to be stubborn. I know how stressful it is to be a client. I get why clients ask for spec. I get why they want to cut budgets. If I were in their shoes, committing 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars, I’d probably be even more neurotic.

    But let’s look at the facts. Even the most brilliant creative people can’t produce great work without trust, mutual respect, and the time to develop ideas.

    Look at all the big agencies out there. The ones that truly make a mark. They’ve all launched their success via a handful of great clients.

    – Ogilvy had Schweppes, Rolls Royce, and Hathaway.

    – Bernbach had Volkswagen, Avis, and Levy’s Rye Bread.

    – Chiat/Day had/has Apple.

    – CP+B has Burger King.

    Of course, I’m oversimplifying things. But great agencies become great because they have great clients. And attracting great clients means saying no to a lot of other ones.

    How many agencies fall into mediocrity chasing big accounts, doing spec work, and continually acquiescing to any and all client demands?

    Great clients know that great work takes time. It takes passion. It takes trust.

    Spec work, to me, is the biggest early indicator that there will be no trust, no mutual understanding, no desire for mutual success. It’s going to be a battle and everyone – client and agency – will lose.

  2. dougbrowncreative April 12, 2010 at 7:06 am #

    Mario I can see that you, like me, have felt the sting of doing spec creative and where it all leads.

    If an RFP is a chance for a client to feel out an agency, it’s equally a great opportunity for the agency to feel out the client. We all have our criteria and an RFP is very revealing. Better to know the lay of the land at the earliest possible stage.

    Thanks for the fantastic comment!

  3. tom April 12, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    As a client, there’s another big reason why you should avoid an agency that will do spec work… because you pay for it!

    Not directly of course, but if the agency you work with provides spec work, then consider what happens when they’re not awarded the project they’re going for, whether it’s your project or someone else’s.

    Suddenly they have a glut of unpaid hours – and with so much emphasis on the creative in the absence of insight, research and understanding, you can bet they’ve spent a LOT of time on it. So how do they recover the expense? simple, it gets spread across all the paying client work. So not only are your agency overcharging, or under-servicing you, but you’re paying for the privilege!

    As Mario commented above; client or agency? everyone loses!

  4. Thomas Schertzer April 12, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    My opinion:

    This is only the second time I have heard of Speculative Creative so after reading your email and the ‘to spec or not to spec’ I looked through our Universities online databases and ran into an interesting article. Luckily I found it online as well for your viewing.


    I thought that this was the most relevant piece to the article “Agencies that devote unrecoverable time and resources to “spec” work damage their existing clients and even the advertisers for whom the work is done. “Spec” work is an unreliable measure of an agency, showing only one dimension and ignoring important qualities such as strategic thinking, shared values, senior management commitment, chemistry and so on.”

    It is my opinion that an Advertising Agencies worth is in the finished product that a consumer sees, but more importantly it is the process that was taken to achieve the end goal. Working with your client’s requests as well as effectively moving through a detailed process to not only achieve an end goal that is aligned with your clients goals but also proving to them your true intentions, which is to provide them the means to achieve their goal (whether it be increased traffic, awareness, bookings etc.)
    I think that if you are practicing Speculative Creative then your values are not aligning with your clients, and you want to have the best clients to complete the best work possible. I think that denying speculative creative is a good position.


  5. dougbrowncreative April 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Good points from both Tom and Thomas. It’s encouraging that graphic designers have banded together against this practice but I wouldn’t hold your breath for ad agencies to do the same. All it takes is one agency down on its revenues to want to swing for the fences and the game’s up.
    FYI, we turned down an invitation to participate in a national brand RFP yesterday with a direct invitation from the client because spec creative work was required. We are putting our money where our (my) mouth is.

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