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Cognition

War on Spec

Some agencies adhere to the mantra “you get the clients you deserve.” If that’s the case, clients also get the results they deserve—especially when they hire based on spec. This past year, I watched two projects implode after they landed with other agencies who provided spec work in the sales process. I’m not typically a sore loser, but if you hire a partner based off of spec work, you’re digging your own grave.

No one ever got fired for buying IBM

There is a collective body of work that describes the pitfalls of spec work, but the drawbacks and risks identified largely focus inward on the design teams—not the risk this practice poses to you, the client.

Many client-side project teams manage one or two large-scale redesign projects per year, or maybe one large project every few years. Even when clients have previous experience handling a redesign (a critical project requirement in my book), they typically are not as fluent in large-scale web projects as their potential agency partners.

Agencies live and breathe large-scale web projects year-round. This amount of experience (and all that is at stake internally) can leave hiring clients feeling insecure, unsure of what constitutes success, and ultimately paralyzed by a fear of picking the wrong partner. This fear can infect the partner evaluation process. Seeing a proposed end product, during the sales process, reassures clients that a potential partner is capable of handling all that is at stake with a redesign. The work is almost already done, right? You’ve already gained a month on our project timeline—we’re through design! Not necessarily. One of the client projects we lost this year to spec work (which was won by an agency that provided two functional websites as part of their pitch) has already blown their hard launch deadline by three months. How is that possible? The agency provided two websites. All that was needed was to make it so.

Less is less

Spec work can quickly become a disappointingly subtractive process. Promises made through spec work struggle to hold their shape under the bright lights of actual project requirements, stakeholder and user feedback, technical and staffing constraints, etc. Once actual strategies are defined, both clients and their partners end up heartbrokenly casting aside early spec tactics that were unfettered by research or reality.

Being able to navigate projects successfully through a timeline and through your organization is the art of client services. The excitement surrounding the vision for the project dies the death of a thousand paper cuts as reality erodes uninformed ideas. Setting the stage for mounting disappointment at a project’s onset, when agencies make promises they have no idea whether or not they can keep, jeopardizes project health and welfare.

In for a penny, in for a pounding

Beyond the risk spec work poses to a project’s outcome, a partner’s practice of spec pitching jeopardizes their business, and therefore your project. The risks agencies take in spec pitching can be debilitating, and the fallout is often shouldered by clients.

Happy Cog’s sales process separates the sales conversation from project work. Only once a project is awarded to us will we barrel into research, design, and development. In my role, the only thing lost in a lost pitch is the time we took to respond: hours. At other agencies, that could be days, weeks, or in some cases months’ (yes months) worth of work hours. With so much on the line, what wouldn’t those agencies say or promise you to land the project?

Each time agencies pre-invest in spec work, they mortgage their organizations on winning the work and the payment that will follow. Because their sales process includes unpaid design and development work before a project is officially “won,” the pressure is on the person in a business development position to “sell the creative.” If the work goes unsold, clients operate at a deficit—one that increases as they continue to lose spec-work-driven pitches. Staff are often overtaxed having to create pitch work on top of a regular workload, which can contribute to more frequent staff turnover (another risk to your project).

The second project we lost this year to spec work was killed by the client after selecting their partner, but before beginning any paid work. All of that “winning” agency’s spec work and effort went uncompensated. They lost the project, the revenue, potentially taxed their team to create the work, and may suffer the exodus of staff burned out by their sales process. Outcomes like these take their toll on an agency, but more worrisomely for clients, they can potentially derail other unrelated engagements. Put more bluntly, once you’ve already begun a paid engagement with an agency, their spec work for new engagements can take away from your own redesign.

We’ve only just begun…

Spec work doesn’t begin the first time your potential partners crack open a new file in Photoshop during the sales process. Spec work begins the minute your potential partners start prescribing uninformed solutions and outcomes before they fully understand the problem at hand. A series of “conversation starter,” bullet-pointed ideas or promises in a proposal can cause as much project trouble as uninformed design comps.

Because these half-baked ideas are introduced so early, they stick. They linger. They become tactics your stakeholders can’t let go of later in the engagement, even though they contradict your selected agency’s growing understanding of scope and requirements. They act as a barrier preventing new, more informed and realistic strategies from forming—the type of ideas that will make your project a success in the end.

At the core of its namesake, spec work is purely speculative. No matter what form it takes, it’s abstract. It’s theoretical. It’s not practical, and it’s dangerous for clients.

Stop spec

Clients, please realize that spec work threatens your own companies and your projects—not just your agency partners. Don’t convince yourself agencies are passionate about your brand or product because they “double down the effort” to win your work. Don’t fall for flashy design work presented in the sales process, thinking it will make your project life shorter or easier. Don’t mistake sparkly ideas and promises for informed thinking or requirements. Don’t feel comforted when prospective partners give away the farm in an attempt to land your business—it only means they are willing to put their business and your project at significant risk. Lastly, don’t think that asking my team to jot down some initial ideas is any less speculative than requesting a full mockup.

Being good at spec work isn’t the same as being good at actual work. The actual work is successfully navigating a project through a complex project timeline to positive, measurable outcomes. Instead of looking for spec work to help you trim down your list of agencies down to just one, look for a track record of measurably successful outcomes, a proven and transparent process, and a laundry list of enthusiastic client testimonials and references. Then, you’ll be able to pick a true partner.

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