Whisper & Company

Why We Don't Do Speculative Work

Emanuele Faja

At Whisper & Company, we have a policy that prevents us from doing any type of speculative (also known as “spec”) creative work. This is free work that is done in order to win a pitch or project, before any guarantees have been made from the client side.

While this may be considered risky for a creative design agency, we have had this policy since our very first day in business.  This is considered unconventional, as most agencies work by doing speculative work, but we thought through this issue and came away with the conclusion that speculative work simply isn’t worth it for us or even for our clients. 

Of course, like any important decision, you have to live with it. It occasionally means refusing to do a pitch for a client, or having to explain exactly why this is our approach. Today’s blog post is meant to be a reference guide to our way of thinking on this topic. 

It’s downright obvious why speculative work is bad for an agency like Whisper & Company. It drives up costs,  it eats into otherwise billable hours, it takes our focus away from creating awesome work for projects that have actually been commissioned. 

However, what’s not so clear, is that speculative work is actually bad for the potential client too. This sounds strange, after all, surely it’s a great thing to receive dozens and dozens of ideas, while not having to pay anything for it? 

Well, as we shall see, the reality is not quite as rosy as it first appears. 

Here are our reasons why we don’t do speculative work. 

1. It’s Not a True Representation of the End Result

At Whisper & Company, we live and breathe design. It’s our passion, and so it would really be against our values to try and win a project by showing speculative work that is simply not representative of what the end result will be. As mentioned in the introduction, speculative work is expensive for an agency, and doing superb speculative work, to the same level as the work we do for active projects, would be prohibitively expensive. 

This is because of the amount of research, variations, thinking, concept design, and more, that goes it each and every design job. Without that, speculative work is just a quick mockup, which has very little value or relevance compared to what the finished product will be. 

2. It Makes Your Project More Expensive.

Agencies that focus on doing lots and lots of speculative work have higher costs than agencies that don’t. That’s a simple fact of life. 

And unsurprisingly, that extra cost of doing speculative work is passed on to those clients that are won over by it! So if as a client you choose an agency that does speculative work, remember that somewhere in the costing of your project, you are paying for other companies to have design work done for them free of charge. That doesn’t feel great, does it?

At Whisper & Company, we’re a lean, mean, design machine. We have very few of the usual overheads associated with the traditional agency business models, but with all the benefits. As an example, we run a distributed team across the world, savings us tens of thousands of dollars worth of office space. This is money we can invest of finding the top talent, and also giving our clients the best possible value for their money. 

3. Mockups Are Only a Small Part of the Decision Making Process. 

Speculative work, or mockups, as we prefer to call them, should not really be a factor in the decision making process of picking the right agency for your business. If they are a factor, they should be a very small one. 

What’s more important is the “fit” that your chosen agency will have with your business, their flexibility, the overall cost and value, and their portfolio and reference clients. 

Just viewing mockups and picking the one that you like most takes your focus away from other key questions you should be asking.

Taken to an extreme, an agency could have all their top talent doing mockups to win new client work, and then have second tier designers who do the actual grunt work in the project.  Whisper & Company, on the other hand, are 100% focussed on paid client work. This means that all the (awesome) work you see that comes from us, is exactly the type of work that you can expect from us in the future. 


4. It Throws a Red Flag Up For Us

If a client asks for mockups, this often throws up a red flag for us. Are they sure about what they need? Do they understand the type of project that they are getting into? Will they be timely in their feedback? Do they have the budget? 

Uncertainty in any of the above questions, means risk for an agency, and risk is often associated with higher prices to mitigate the risk that is always there when doing business. 

So beware, you may be flagging yourself as a potential difficult client, even if you’re not, purely by asking for mockups in the first place. 

5. It Can Kill Great Ideas.

We’ve never done speculative work, but if we did, we know that it wouldn’t be our most groundbreaking creative work. This is because we would feel a need to “play it safe” to ensure that we would win the pitch. 

We’re sure this is the same thought process that goes on in agencies that actually do speculative work. 

You wouldn’t give a really risky creative pitch, because this has the potential to lose you the work. 

However, once a project is actually underway, then it’s a completely different story. We’re free to try something crazy, something different, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll just file it away as one of many ideas that didn’t make it. It’s a far less stressful environment to try new creative ideas. 

A pitch for a large project is the opposite, the pressure is on, and one feels that there is no room for mistakes - or great ideas that are risqué .


Conclusion

Clients should take a long and hard think about “professionals” who will willing give up their valuable time to do free work with no guarantees. If they are of a truly professional caliber, their work should be awesome, and so they should be in demand, and so should have no time to do speculative work. 

At Whisper & Company we pitch on value. We don’t try and distract our potential client with mockups, but instead focus on past successes, case studies, references, and our process and approach, while also asking probing questions to try and understand their business as well as possible.

We feel that this gives the prospective client the best possible way to evaluate us as a digital design partner, and to make an informed choice. 

 

 

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