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Cognition

The Magpie, the Peacock, and the Mole King

We lost another job to spec work.

Originally I came here, to this previously blank page, horrifyingly white (both myself and the screen—it’s been a busy summer) and blinded by rage, to rail against designer injustices (the ones made for designers and by designers) and gnash my teeth and furiously hammer out another scathing anti-spec article (that no one needs), when I remembered a conversation.

A few years ago I was talking with a friend, defending my position on a different industry hot-button issue. Which one I can’t recall. For all I can remember it might have been about an actual button: we’re not wanting for more mountains made from mole hills around here.

And I must have got a little high and mighty in familiar company, King of Mole Hill Mountain, struck a tone, because she stopped me:

“Do you talk to your clients like that?”

Enough’s already been written about spec work. If you’re unfamiliar with our industry’s ruling majority on the issue, here’s the executive summary: We can’t responsibly solve a communication problem without an adequate amount of time to communicate with you, and we certainly can’t do it for free. The finer points you’re welcome to read for yourself. One or two will do you. Suffice it to say as an industry we all agree.

So I’m not sure where to direct this. Am I just preaching to the converted?

I don’t harbor any ill will towards designers who do spec. It’s their prerogative. I spent the middle five years of my career on deck for those spec creative pitches, but it wasn’t “spec” to me: I mean, I got paid an okay salary (and, to be honest, I enjoyed the challenge, triumphing over rival agencies doing the same dog and pony show). That I was somehow eroding my profession’s economic power was a thought which never occurred to me.

One 18-hour Saturday compositing somebody else’s grand vision is what did me in. It would seem an unsustainable agency model, what with so much turnover, but at the foot of every burned-out forest is another waiting to grow in its grave: there’s no shortage of designers out there willing to do whatever it takes to scratch their itch, crawl out of obscurity, finally show their potential … give up their weekends.

This kind of churn is unlikely to let up anytime soon. The spec-pitch machine isn’t something you just turn off. Dead end.

Naturally, then, I should blame the client who allowed Peacock & Co. to hypnotize them with their showy tail. And I should just say, “good riddance,” “you’ll get what you deserve,” “they don’t value design,” etc etc etc.

Well I’m not convinced.

I wouldn’t be so quick to label them freeloaders. The spec-based selection process most clients initiate is to protect themselves against their own ignorance: they simply don’t know enough to know how to get what they want. The stakes are too high, money’s too tight, and they have a litany of questions they don’t know how to ask. The language is foreign and their bullshit detectors aren’t calibrated. For all we know it’s institutional, historic. It could be their bosses did it this way, and their bosses before them, and their bosses before them. Or it’s something they caught from a promiscuous RFP, one that never settled down anywhere, got passed around—it bears its baggage. Or maybe they just got burned by a bad agency. Simple.

There could be a million different possible reasons why I’m writing this instead of kicking off an in-person workshop. The most likely explanation is the least offensive: Us.

In an online debate between Bruce Nussbaum and Michael Bierut in 2006 over Nussbaum’s solicitation of spec work for his magazine INside Innovation, Beirut concluded: “Designers who [are] opposed to working for free should make sure they have something unique and compelling to sell.” And that’s all there is to it: Differentiate, or Die.

And we didn’t differentiate.

Withdrawing from consideration isn’t your only option. When the Birds convened to elect a new leader in Aesop’s “The Peacock and the Magpie,” the Peacock won over the “silly multitude by his brilliant appearance.” But it was the wily Magpie who stepped forth and challenged the new king with just a simple question: What means would you take for our defense against the Eagle, the Hawk, the Kite? And “this pithy question opened the eyes of the Birds to the weakness of their choice. They cancelled the election, and have ever since regarded the Peacock as a vain pretender, and considered the Magpie to be as good a speaker as any of their number.”

So, hell with the mole hills. And forget about the Peacock.

Strike like the Magpie.

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