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Spec work

Updated: Mar 24

My 2024 started off excitedly with a series of quote requests - 6 to be clear. A little administrative work before the action, but good professional vibes for the new year. I have nothing against the asking for quotes - my work doesn't have a price list displayed for the client to read before entering like in a restaurant, or a clothing store that has prices on tags on the items it sells, so asking for prices for a Design work, more than understandable, is mandatory.

However, 4 of these 6 budget requests were put out to tender, after the values were presented.

There is a long way to go between a quote request and a pitch. And a tender is understood as the presentation of a complete solution for a given project… in addition to the price.

It’s easy to reach 2 or 3 or more agencies, present a brief asking for a solution to a certain problem “and also show me how much will it cost so that I can have an argument for refusing the more expensive jobs, regardless of their quality”. What is the risk involved for those who promote such a contest? You receive 2 or 3 or more proposals and only pay 1, and you can still do a little cry at the price presented for the “winning” proposal. “We decided that your proposal is the most advantageous and that it fits the objectives and strategy of our project, but we have to talk about the price…”

Meanwhile, the other professionals or agencies that participated in the pitch invested resources, time, energy, in what?

“But Miguel, it is the liberalization of the market. And many agencies rely on New Business to make themselves known to new clients…” a voice cries from the crowd...

— Liberalization does not justify the absence of rules and, above all, ethics.

Pitch is speculative work (period)

And it should be banned. Unless there are very clear rules that legitimize such market consultation.

In 2015, 32 of the then 35 advertising agencies registered with APAP, the Portuguese Association of Advertising, Communication and Marketing Agencies, signed an agreement pledging that a private tender must have a maximum of three competing agencies. The number could increase to four if the previous agency the client worked with is taken into account. This measure, although relevant, does not resolve a series of other issues that should be important when launching a competition.

Criticism and complaints are something that are out there a lot. I never enjoyed criticizing without presenting solutions or sketches of ideas that could serve as a discussion, to grow into something that solves or helps solve a certain problem. For this reason, I leave here a series of considerations that seem relevant to me.

1st - A market consultation should only take place above a certain value.

Competitions for €3000? 2000? What is the next step? Competitions to make leaflets?

“Absurd” is an understatement.

It is important that a market consultation is supported with values that justify it. €50,000? 100.000?

I don't know and I don't want to be the person who determines that value. I am aware that not all companies are capable of paying such prices, for this reason, the decision must, in these cases, have other criteria. Normally a simple quote request is enough for 99% of customers to make a decision.

2nd - A limited number of players in the competition.

A few years ago I witnessed a regulatory entity promoting a competition in which 11 agencies participated. 11 agencies corresponds to at least 11 proposals, unless some present more solutions. There are 11 possible solutions to solve a problem. But the promoter only pays one. Of course, the agency that wins the pitch profits from it, but what about the others? How many people were involved in the project. How many hundreds or thousands of € were spent operationally in exchange for ... nothing?

3rd - Participation fee.

Taking the previous point, if the entity that promoted the competition was obliged to pay a participation fee, it would certainly not invite 11 agencies to the pitch. A rejection fee not only demonstrates respect for the work of those involved, it also legitimizes a market consultation. If the contest promoter refuses to pay the fee, it will not be able to create the contest and will consequently have to resort to other evaluation criteria to choose the supplier. For example, taking the necessary time to get to know companies and their work before choosing one and awarding the project to them.

It's called "homework".

4th - Scrupulous compliance with the previous rules by everyone involved.

We live in times where smartie pants people reaches historic levels. It is up to all of us, freelancers, studios, agencies, to follow the rules and report situations of abuse, because they are. It's we, communication professionals in the most varied areas, who must give ourselves respect before demanding the respect we want to have. And this can only be achieved with a clear message to the market - No more speculative work.

For me, it is unthinkable to bring together 5 restaurants and hold a competition to see which one will serve me a steak. When I go to buy clothes, if the price on the label in a particular store doesn't suit me, I'll go somewhere else. I'm not going to waste my time and that of others because the price of a pair of pants isn't to my liking. If I want to install new windows in my home, I'm not going to ask 3 different companies to each install a free window, so I can decide on one of them. I could make an entire season of my podcast with absurd examples of situations that we, professionals in design, communication and the like, are exposed to on a daily basis, and we agree with them by accepting speculative work, requests for free payments and situations that reduce our activity.

All work, services, products have a price, why not Graphic Design?

A little aside - while writing this article, I stumbled upon an Instagram post from a Brooklyn studio - Porto Rocha - who created a website - - with the intention of creating a movement, a commitment for everyone involved in the creative industry, to refuse spec work. By signing you are committing that you will not participate in unpaid work. Sign, share, be part of the discussion. Let's change what's wrong.

Since I started working for myself, I have refused to participate in pitches. This January I turned down 2 uncertain job opportunities. In one of them I didn't even want to know the terms involved. All I had to do was hear the words “pitch" and “agency” in the same sentence. In a direct and dispassionate way, I don't have the structure to participate in pitches. That means time and energy consumed in an uncertain scenario, time and energy that I'm stealing from work I have in progress, for clients who pay for my work, not to mention the time I will have to steal from my personal life to be able to participate in the pitch.

I will succeed or fail with my rules and not with the rules that are imposed on me if they do not make sense. If one day I'm not able to work in this area because of my convictions, I know I have enough determination to be able to do something else.

Until then … it’s my way or the highway, baby …

Do you think I'm being too intransigent? What is your opinion regarding pitches? Do you agree with the rules I propose? Leave your opinion in the comments.

Thank you for making it to the end of this article and will I see you on the next one?


This article is an adaptation, translated from the script of the 17th episode of my podcast Graphic Design in Portuguese

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