To Work for Free or Not to Work for Free | Porchlight

To Work for Free or Not to Work for Free

Preparing speculative (a.k.a. “spec”) work for new business is a common practice in the agency world. In the design world, however, there is a rising tide for abolishing spec work with entire websites devoted to just saying “NO!” to spec work. Normally, the scenario is for a client to send out Requests for Proposals, or RFPs, to various agencies asking them to submit their work/ideas in exchange for the opportunity to win the ongoing business. Some call this “pre-work” and with good reason, as interested agencies research, brainstorm and produce creative work in preparation for the pitch. And all of this with no guarantee of getting the business. The client listens and reviews each pitch and awards one agency with future business. In most cases, the other agencies go home with nothing.

As a small agency, we go back and forth about spec work. One argument is to do spec work in the hopes that we gain a larger account, and some great creative work would come our way. The other argument is to say, “No, we don’t do spec work.” In our opinion, there are several good reasons to say yes and to say no.

“Yes” Means “Maybe”
If we do the spec work and elect to participate in the pitch, we’re standing up and saying that we are willing to invest for the opportunity to have this client as a part of our portfolio. Of course, they would also need to fit the values that we seek from a new client. Furthermore, the outlined scope of the RFP would need to meet the overall value of the future business. Meaning, it may be free for the client, however, there are significant costs that need to be factored in. We invest time, manpower, printing and travel expenses. In short, how much are we willing to gamble to gain this future work, and is it even possible to recoup the upfront investment? In addition, could the new business bring the agency greater credibility or visibility? If we actually win the business, will that business lead us to additional business down the road?

“No” Means “No”
The second way we could look at this would be to say, “No, we don’t do work for free.” The main reason is that we can’t afford to work for free. Another good reason is capacity. Being lean means not having a lot of extra time to put towards non-billable work. We find it difficult to find time to work on our own brand. So, how can we find time to work on someone else’s brand for free? Another simple reason to say no… working for free in hope of future business is not common practice in other industries. Can you call several architects and ask them to draw up plans for your new home and then pick the best one to work with? How about requesting a few pizza joints to deliver a few samples for you to try before you buy?

In the end, we’ve done spec work before and may do it again if the client is a perfect fit. The goal for us as a small agency is to prove ourselves with our past work; however, if a client needs to see more from us and we are able to participate, we will.

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Sustainability Design