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Amy Alexander
By Amy Alexander on January 23, 2020

Why Most Marketing and Creative Agencies Do Not Work On Spec

Sometimes, clients want to know if we’ll work on spec. Or in other words: do we have enough faith in our product to bring a finished marketing program to the table before anyone agrees to pay for it? The quick and short answer is: no. Our team doesn’t work on spec.

In some ways, this question comes down to trust. As a prospective buyer of marketing services, if you’re asking this question then you do not trust us or another agency enough to pay for unseen results. And, we can understand that feeling.

The truth is, marketing has become the car salesman of B2B careers. We make big claims about growth, but many times don’t come through. And business owners feel as if they’ve been manipulated into wasting money.

So, let’s dive into the meat of this question, and explain why we don’t work this way.

On-Spec Work for Design

For decades, it was common for designers and graphic freelancers to work for spec. Someone would commission something, like a logo or a flyer, the designer would get to work, and then bring back a fairly complete comp. At that point, the client would decide if they were willing to pay for it. 

The problem with this model for graphic/visual work is simple: design is an educated craft that allows for a wide variation of subjective responses. There are rules; there is purpose and intent behind the decisions a designer makes… but everyone that views a design will still have a personal reaction, and they may not always “like” what they see.

A client’s personal feelings about a design don’t necessarily dictate if it will be effective in the marketplace. And, any designer worth their salt will build something that effectively communicates the tone and message of the piece. 

Unfortunately, the only way to prove it’s efficacy is by putting it out in the public and measuring the results. This is not part of spec work. 

Ultimately, if a designer spends ten hours of their valuable time designing a client piece, the client could walk away for no other reason than they didn’t like it. This devalues a designer’s profession. Designers aren’t just artists, they are professionals with training around how to manipulate shapes, colors, imagery, and typography to properly architect a message. They are problem solvers.

We believe that if you trust a designer is a professional, then you trust that they know better and will develop something that meets your end goal. Instead of opting for spec work, we recommend you find a designer you trust.

marketing does not equal visibility


Let’s break for an example:

Let’s take masonry, for instance. If an experienced mason is asked to build an opening between two brick walls on speculation, he may decide that an archway is the sturdiest and most attractive opening to build. When finished, the client could come and say “well, it hasn’t fallen down and it does serve the purpose, but I don’t like the archway. I think I’ll find someone else, but thanks for the effort.” In no world would this happen -- right? For designers with a portfolio, this feels very much the same.

On-Spec Work for Marketing

The same principles can be said about the broader world of marketing: writers, designers, strategists, videographers, web builders, etc. gather together to craft a solution to a client need. They do this based on a lot of knowledge and expertise. And, doing this immense amount of work for free--hoping a client will pay--is just not respectful, sustainable, or manageable for any team of professionals.

So why do so many agencies fall short of delivering? Why do clients feel they can’t trust us?

Marketing has a low barrier to entry.

With an endless flow of knowledge on the internet, anyone can claim to be a marketer. It can be difficult to assess if a person or team of people really have the expertise necessary to get the job done. And, many well-meaning people are willing to sell their services without the actual chops to deliver on their promise.

Marketing is a soft science.

Let’s be clear: marketing is a science. But, it’s also an art. There are ways to track digital marketing, but it absolutely relies on intimate collaboration with those closing the deals. That could be you, or a sales person, or an entire sales team. But, marketing teams rely on the flow of feedback from sales. How else can they ensure leads are qualified?

When it comes to tracking real-life data, it’s often difficult to close the loop on what sales were actually made. A marketing team can (and should) tell you how many clicks/calls/conversions they made. But, they can’t reach into a client’s sales data unless it’s shared. 

Traditional media, like newspaper ads and billboards, can only provide anecdotal evidence. Often, marketing teams are still pressured into using these unreliable methods to prove their worth.

Aside from the true science of marketing, there is a talent and art that comes from years of trial and error.

Speaking of trial and error, there is also no doubt that marketing money must be spent to test ideas and concepts in order to land on something that’s worth investing large dollars into. This is an activity we take very seriously. We A/B test messaging, imaging, and conversion methods. Sometimes that can only happen through an educated guess. And, the guess must be tested to be validated.

Often, clients don’t understand the ins-and-outs of these decisions and abandon the process before a team can prove themselves. And this is seen as failure.

marketing does not equal visibility

Marketing can be a red herring.

Lastly, marketing will almost always be blamed for a lack of company growth. However, it could be the result of many other factors: sales not closing deals, products no longer meeting the market need, a company not innovating their brick and mortar in a digital age, etc. It’s typical that no matter the true cause, the marketers (internal or external) will be blamed and replaced.

Marketing doesn’t control a large number of factors like pricing, product/market fit, quality of sales and closing process, and the reputation of the brand. All of these factors go alongside the marketing effort to create success or failure.  Working on spec when all of these factors are unknown, and cannot be controlled, is really a lot more like gambling than investing.

When it comes to working on spec, it’s easy to see that asking a team of professionals to work for free until a client decides they are worth paying just isn’t feasible.

Note: In the startup world, investing on spec is traded for a stake in the company. But that’s not usually the offer that’s being made.

Let’s break for another example:

Let’s take wedding planning, for instance. If a wedding planner takes a wedding on speculation, they may do all the legwork and planning. They might choose a specific kind of invitation based on their knowledge of the couple, and mail those out. Then, they execute on all the other elements of the wedding planning process. Because they are experienced, they even tracked some of their invitations to be sure they arrived, and confirmed with the bride and groom that people were RSVPing. The day of the wedding arrives, and now it’s time for the happy couple to decide if they are going to pay. They say, “We see how hard you worked, and that this was quite a process. We also saw your invitation and approved the design and language. And, we saw evidence it was received by those you mailed it to. But, only 10% of the people we invited showed up. So, we really can’t see why we would pay you.” This, again, would never happen in the real world.

The Pay Per Lead Solution

Some agencies, especially those advertising lead delivery, are paid for the leads they deliver -- and that’s it. If they deliver nothing, they get nothing. This has been seen as a fairly great compromise for those who want an agency to earn their trust.

In short, we think this is brilliant. It’s a great solution for a specific set of marketing services. It’s simply not how we are set up. We’ll soon have another great article published about our pricing, and why Story Collaborative is not set up for Pay Per Lead.

marketing does not equal visibility

Published by Amy Alexander January 23, 2020
Amy Alexander