Creating Creative: Spec Work and the Expectation of Exploitation

Dear Reader, please feast your eyes on this deliciously snarky video before delving into the discussion below:

It seems funny (and it is), but it’s not a joke.

(Spec)ial Treatment

Within the vocational realm of creative individuals, there exists a common, insidious, and infuriating standard that consistently rears its ugly head: delivering work on spec. In this twisted dynamic, clients provide a request for proposal (RFP) that serves as an outline of free work that, if done according to the client’s varying (and inevitably fluid) expectations, might lead to a professional relationship. If the client isn’t fully satisfied with the work or if they prefer the work of some other poor sap they have wrangled into a similar arrangement, they simply carry on in another direction with your intellectual property stuffed neatly in their back pocket.

Of course, this arrangement can almost exclusively only be found in creative professions (say marketing, for instance). To my admittedly limited knowledge, bricklayers don’t lay just the perimeter of a foundation, surgeons don’t perform just an initial incision, and lawyers don’t provide just an opening argument in a trial. Why, then, do creative professionals represent the lone cross-section of society that is beholden to this antiquated form of servitude? Why is it that we are expected to provide free work when we have achieved so much in the past – achievements that are a PDF and an email away from any potential client? It often comes down to a fundamental lack of respect for the work or a misunderstanding of what goes into the work, and that lack of respect manifests itself into diminished self-respect on behalf of marketing agencies and their employees.

A Proposal

The truth is that work that cannot be directly quantified into a premium return on investment will always be grossly undervalued, even if that work routinely exceeds the investment indirectly. For instance, creating an e-book focusing on statutes of limitations at the state level and the urgency of filing a claim would be an incredibly detailed and labor-intensive process. It would involve an immense amount of research, countless outline iterations, dozens of pages of copy, multiple editing sessions, design implementations, virtual optimization, final executive approval, and more. Then, in order to monetize the finished product, it would have to be attached to a specific marketing strategy (probably a paid-advertising campaign) that would itself take days to create, weeks to optimize, and months to establish ROI. Landing pages would have to be written and designed, analytics would have to be implemented and analyzed, and the campaign would have to be diligently observed throughout the duration of its life cycle.

In the end, the leads that such a whitepaper could bring to a law firm would likely generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

The above paragraph details a project that would cost, conservatively, somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000, but would it surprise you to know that some clients would have no problem asking for the above project to be delivered on spec? Yup! Certain people either so misunderstand or so blatantly disrespect the expertise and the amount of work involved in creating marketing campaigns that they think asking for such work on spec is a totally reasonable request.

Disrespectfully Yours

When a client requests work on spec, they are implying that they do not trust an agency’s ability to deliver a profitable and effective campaign. Just like other professions, marketers (including LaFleur) are happy to provide customer testimonials, client referrals, and copious examples of previous work, yet there often remains an expectation of “something for nothing.” And inherent in that expectation lies a dismissive condescension that is equal parts subtle and nauseating. No other profession would tolerate, much less acquiesce to, such demands.

Note the professionals’ reactions to the proposed spec work in the video above:

Architect: “That sounds completely ass backwards.”

Barista: “What if you were just my client, like, right now? And you were paying for the coffee?”

Restauranteur: “Don’t pull my leg! Get out of my place!”

And my personal favorite, provided by a rather intense personal trainer:

Trainer: “Do you do what you do for free?”

Goofball: “Uh, no.”

Trainer: “So, why do you want me to?”

These professionals are legitimately angered (rightfully so), and they’re legitimately insulted (rightfully so) at the mere idea (not the execution) of providing free work in the hopes of maybe receiving future paid work. What if the buffoon in the video didn’t like his breakfast? Didn’t enjoy his mocha latte? Wasn’t impressed by the architect’s blueprints? Didn’t see a 10% decrease in body fat after his workout? Should there be an expectation of a free product or service, plus the right to ownership of said recipe or structural design? Of course not. Yet, marketing agencies and other creative professionals continue to be held to a unique and inequitable standard.

Playing with a Fixed Deck

Marketing is an especially competitive industry, so the occasional limited-offer first month discounts or commission-based pricing structure come with the territory, and we at LaFleur are happy to negotiate in our agreements, but no marketing agency should be asked to work on spec, nor should any potential client work with a marketing agency that is eager or even willing to do so.

If a marketing agency cannot obtain your business based on samples of their previous work and strong testimonials and references, they clearly lack the sort of track record that you should be demanding. You want an agency with years of experience, an exceptional reputation, and empirical evidence of the quality of their past work – not some new kid on the block that is willing to betray their own sense of self-respect by working their employees to the bone without the guarantee of a professional relationship. It’s unprofessional, and it’s beneath a confident, capable marketing agency.

If, however, you are looking for a reputable agency that can provide rock-solid examples of exceptional work, LaFleur Legal Marketing is the marketing asset you have been waiting for. Our marketing professionals have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they can put to work for you and your law firm. We offer a wide range digital marketing services, and we know how to leverage your firm’s unique value to reinforce your brand and increase the quality and quantity of your incoming leads.

Please call us today at (888) 222-1512 or complete the form on this page to schedule a free consultation today!


Reagen, E. (2015, November 15). Watch what happens when you ask non-creative professionals to work for free. PhotographyBay. Retrieved from

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