Coffee shops don’t let you taste an entire coffee unless you pay for it. Can you consult multiple lawyers for legal advice and then pay only one? Do architects hand over their designs and blueprints unless you hire them? Then why is it that designers and agencies are often required to showcase free speculative work (‘spec work’) as part of the creative bidding process in new business pitches? Even worse, why do they continue to do it? Isn’t it understood that a designer’s time (or any creative’s, for that matter) is worth being compensated for? If you’ve heard this as truth, don’t believe it. After all, this is not a new question.
 
Fortunately, there is an agency willing to tackle this issue, and they have brilliantly answered this ongoing dilemma. Based in Toronto, Canada, ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo Inc. has created a hilarious yet poignant video illustrating just how ludicrous ‘spec work’ is. Watch it to see the reactions of real men and women (not actors) being asked to conduct or give their business in such a silly way.
 
I love it, and it’s why I will never do it.
The Absurdity of ‘Spec Work’
 
You might have heard the saying, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” It’s a sentiment that holds true in many aspects of life, reminding us that certain things come at a cost, and expecting something for free often results in disappointment. This saying applies to the world of design and creative agencies just as much as any other field.
 
Consider this: coffee shops don’t offer you a full cup of coffee to taste unless you pay for it. You don’t seek advice from multiple lawyers and then only pay one. Architects don’t hand over their meticulously crafted designs and blueprints unless you’ve officially hired them. So, why is it that the design and creative industry often finds itself in a situation where ‘spec work’ is expected as part of the bidding process for new business pitches?
 
The Quandary of ‘Spec Work’
 
‘Spec work,’ short for speculative work, is a practice where designers or agencies are asked to create and present work for a potential project or client without any guarantee of compensation. In other words, they invest their time, creativity, and resources with no promise of payment. It’s a practice that, for many professionals, raises significant concerns.
 
Why is ‘spec work’ such a contentious issue in the creative industry? Here are a few reasons:
 
   The Value of Creativity: Creative professionals, whether designers, writers, or artists, invest a great deal of time, energy, and skill into their work. Asking them to provide it for free undermines the value of their creativity.
 
    Diminishing Quality: When professionals are not compensated for their work, it can lead to rushed or lower-quality results. After all, it’s challenging to invest fully in a project when there’s no guarantee of payment.
 
    Unsustainable Practice: The ‘spec work’ model is unsustainable for the long-term health of the creative industry. It can discourage emerging talents from pursuing creative careers when they see their work consistently devalued.
 
A Hilarious Wake-Up Call
 
Amidst the ongoing debate around ‘spec work,’ there is one agency that has taken a unique and humorous approach to address the issue. Zulu Alpha Kilo Inc., an advertising agency based in Toronto, Canada, has created a video that brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of ‘spec work.’ (As you just hopefully watched).
 
In this video, real people (not actors) are asked to provide their services or goods for free as part of a business deal. Their reactions range from disbelief to outright refusal, with some questioning the absurdity of the request. The video serves as a lighthearted but powerful reminder that in many other industries, such practices are unthinkable.
 
Why I Stand Against ‘Spec Work’
 
I wholeheartedly support the message conveyed in Zulu Alpha Kilo’s video. As a creative professional, I understand the value of time and expertise. Expecting designers and agencies to provide ‘spec work’ without compensation is both unfair and unsustainable. It not only devalues our craft but also sets a detrimental precedent for the industry.
 
Creativity should be celebrated, respected, and compensated fairly. It’s how we continue to push boundaries, inspire innovation, and drive progress. When we invest in our work, we provide clients with the best of our abilities, resulting in high-quality outcomes that benefit everyone involved.