Jun 16, 2020

Cautionary Tales from the Trenches: The Temptations – and Pitfalls – of Agency Spec Work

When you’re looking for an agency to execute a new project, it’s tempting to request “spec work” – work done by agencies for free as they compete to get your business. Sounds like a good idea, right? You get to see their work, and they have a chance to cement a new opportunity or relationship. But “free” comes with a cost, not only for the agency, but for your organization as well. Here’s why.

Motivation matters.

Why are you extending an offer for spec work? Is it because you want to see what an agency can do creatively? Whether they can plug-and-play your brand, messaging and style guides correctly? Because you’re being required to bid out for budget or due diligence reasons – or simply because someone in a position of power has a favorite agency they want you to use?

True motivation rarely shows up in a request for spec work, but it absolutely affects the way an agency is judged. Which is, quite often, not on their own merits, and certainly not against their ability to think strategically about the best way to help you meet your company’s brand, customer and financial goals. The best marketing is far more than eye-catching creative, a catchy slogan or one person’s preferred relationship. It’s work that truly moves the needle for the business.

It may be tempting to use the agency’s work, even if you don’t hire them.

Many spec work requests come with ownership rights in the fine print – the agency has to sign away the rights to the work they produce, or they won’t be considered. Ethically, of course, the right thing to do if you choose not to engage them is thank them for their efforts and keep them in mind for future projects. Legally, though, whatever’s in the contract is in the contract.

At Elevation, we’ve seen it all. In fact, when we do spec work as part of an RFP, we’ve found that about 20 percent of the time our work gets put in market in some way – without us getting paid for it. It’s cost us millions of dollars. Here are a few stories from the trenches.

Cautionary tale #1: What goes around comes around.

We had a very successful, strategic, long-term relationship with a tech company well toward the top of the Fortune 500. Despite the fact that our campaigns continued to produce impressive ROI, the client notified us that all new work would be bid out to at least three agencies. Eventually, Elevation began losing those bids – just as a low-cost competitor was growing. Lo and behold, programs we’d pitched to the client started showing up in market. Those same programs began appearing on our competitor’s website as case studies of what they claimed was their own work.

Turns out, the client had been told to cut their marketing budget – so they decided to do so by taking “ownership” of Elevation’s strategies, plans and creative designs submitted through the RFP process and send them to the tactics-only agency to execute on the cheap. Long story short, Elevation stopped working for them, and started working for their competitor. And that other agency? Out of business.    

Cautionary tale #2: The agency will find out… and what goes around comes around.

The CMO and president of a half-billion-dollar construction company hired Elevation to do its corporate marketing. Execution was handed off to a marketing VP – one who was frustrated that we’d been chosen over an agency she’d previously used.

At first, she fed us non-strategic work. Then she asked for a full-blown marketing campaign to launch new markets, complete with creative assets, to be paid for out of the following year’s budget. And a pitch deck she could use to present the campaign to her bosses.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Six weeks later we received a termination letter. Six months later we began seeing our work executed in the market. Turns out, the VP presented our year-long marketing plan to the C-suite as her own – to great fanfare, we can presume – and got permission to execute it with whomever she wished. Well played? Perhaps. But she’s no longer with that company. She’s teaching marketing at a community college.

Cautionary tale #3: The agency will find out… and we learn from our mistakes.

Two in a box is rarely a good idea. A billion-dollar irrigation company was underwhelmed by its agency of record’s (AOR) creative, so they asked Elevation – also an agency for them at the time – to build out the strategy and creative assets for a campaign in collaboration with the AOR.

The client would then choose one of the two to execute the $250K-$500K campaign. Elevation got the nod, but (cue foreshadowing) the client started dragging its feet and never signed off on the statement of work, ostensibly because the product the campaign supported still needed some work.

Fast forward a year. Elevation’s creative is in market – in fact, the campaign’s still running as I write this. And guess who’s taking credit for it?

Yep, the AOR features our work on its website as if it were its own. Now, the executives know success when they see it – which they do, every day, because campaign posters are plastered all over the company’s offices. The good news is that they recently asked us to do some more work for them, and we said yes. The better news – we made sure we were paid in advance.

Cautionary tale #4: We learn from our mistakes… except when we don’t.

Call it pride, ego or competitive drive, but despite having sworn off spec work three years ago, we decided to re-engage with a former client who was coming back around to us after a CMO shuffle sent marketing work elsewhere.

We’d successfully helped them through a rebrand prior to newest-CMO, but it turns out the agency he’d chosen wasn’t well-versed B2B thinking. So we responded to an RFP and got an invite to a meeting – whereupon we discovered our lobby concept already installed in all its glory, down to the last detail. We snapped a photo on our way out.

Sometimes, we still say yes.

We pass that photo of the  lobby (very nice, if we do say so ourselves) around every time a new request for spec work comes in just to remind us of the pitfalls… but still, sometimes we say yes. When an opportunity comes our way, we’ll always look at it, but we pay close attention to the fine print and we ask a lot of questions. We’ve learned that saying “yes” can open our eyes to exciting new challenges. We’ve also learned that saying “no, thank you” can free us to do more meaningful work for existing clients and pursue opportunities with others that are a good strategic fit.

Related Articles:

Seven Ways Advertising & Marketing Agencies Deceive Clients – And How You Can Catch Them in the Act

Top 10 Questions to Ask Your Prospective B2B Marketing Agency

The Importance of Partnering With a B2B Agency to Market Your B2B Product or Service

About the Author:

Scott Miraglia – President

New Scott Miraglia-lores

Scott is a balanced risk-taker with nearly three decades of experience starting and growing advertising and marketing agencies. His business acumen is matched with a drive to build creative teams that thrive in open, collaborative work environments. Scott seeks out the best creative individuals, not only to provide quality service to clients but to also help shape the future direction of Elevation Marketing.

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