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Spec Work: Please Don’t Even Ask


When Imagine was but a wee babe, it was hard for us to prove to companies that we were the right firm for them. We just didn’t have enough clients under our belt to show that we did in fact know what we were doing. As a result, the question of doing a quick mockup would come up, with the purpose being to help the prospect in making a decision on which firm to hire. And while I understand that hiring a marketing or design firm can feel like a leap into the abyss, I shot it down every time. Nowadays, we’ve grown to more of a marketing agency than a company that offers only design, so don’t get many requests for speculative work. But it does happen from time to time. And when it does, I still cringe.

Here’s how I see it: let’s say you’re washing dishes, and you notice there’s a leak under the sink forming a pool of water on the floor. If you’re not savvy enough to fix the leak yourself (hand raised), you’re going to call a plumber.

When that plumber arrives, are you going to ask him to fix the problem first, then decide on whether or not to hire him for the job? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. But it happens everyday with design firms, from companies that – I can only hope – just don’t understand how demeaning it can be to the design firm.

Aside from devaluing a professional’s work by asking for a freebie up front, you’re not going to get that designer’s best work. To do great work, there need to be conversations about your strategy, your needs and how they can best be solved. The designer needs to get a deeper understanding of the problem than simply an RFP, and those deeper conversations and research take time. And that time costs money. As you can see, the concept of speculative work is thoroughly flawed, not just unprofessional.

And to be clear, “spec” work involves any work the client isn’t billed for, including brainstorming sessions, additional rounds of revisions, work in the hopes of a payment later on, etc. Clients that value the professionals they work with understand that as soon as that professional is involved, the clock starts. To get good work, they have to pay for it. Clients that don’t understand this – or simply don’t agree – usually use phrases like “nickel-and-diming”, and tend to bounce from agency to agency, often fired from the professionals they hired.

So please, before you ask for a consultant or designer to do some free work in the hope of consideration for a project, think twice. It truly is a waste of everyone’s time. We’re not alone in this philosophy; it’s an industry standard. To learn more about how others feel about spec work, check out If you still feel that this is an ethical practice, please visit It’ll even open up in this window so you don’t have to come back.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

One Comment

  • Bob McCracken says:

    Another continuing SELLING of the great hoax. I have to prove results before I get paid – why shouldn’t the entire advertising/PR/Web design/SEO group. Because yours is more of a crap shoot and you really aren’t sure it is going to work. Your really not sure that you really have ALL of the up to date trends that are going on. It should be payment based on pre agreed to results.

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