Spec work for pitches

7 years ago from , UX Designer

Hi All,

Every time the agency I'm part of is invited by a potential client to participate in a pitch/RFP we're happy to dive into the problem as much as bandwidth permits.

We invest a lot of time on ideation, concepts and fully designed comps and the team enjoys it a lot but at the same time I feel like it's not only a huge risk (investing hours in something you don't know will end up being bought by the client) but also, our work will be judged without keeping into account a number of nuances

  • You usually have to respond in a very short time
  • You don't have all the information
  • You don't have all the design assets
  • You have to work fast and that means you have to produce ideas and visuals and a narrative without following your usual methodology and process

That's why I thought it would be a good idea to share that thought with you and ask agency people in DN to comment if possible on your approach to pitches: how much time do you invest in a response? do you show concepts? sketches? color comps? videos?



  • Paul BestPaul Best, 7 years ago (edited 7 years ago )

    In my experience, the most helpful advice about spec work is one word: don't.

    Design is a process and doing spec work isn't really design, its fairly cheap decoration given away for free. This is a lose-lose. The client won't appreciate the value of your work and they're whole mindset is biased from the get-go. Not only are you giving up an immense amount of leverage this way, but, most times you still won't get the project so its all in vein.

    An alternative is to confidently explain that your process is what has made you successful. Simply put, there's just no way to "can the process" for an RFP. The potential client should understand how important discovery, goal setting, and problem-framing are to envision a successful design product.

    This is not just client psychology...this will result in a much stronger product in a way you couldn't even have conceived while writing your RFP. You yourself highlight many of the reasons this is the case.

    Your goal in this phase of client courtship is for them to trust that your expertise/leadership is right for this project and build confidence in the quality of your work. Instead of spec, you should demonstrate the results of your process with thoughtful case studies and relate to their needs with a well-written proposal that clearly explains what they're getting for their money.

    8/10 times potential clients respond VERY positively. They love when you assert that, as the professional, you know the best approach. Often they will identify this as a point of differentiation. If your work is good enough to back it up, you're much more likely to get the project this way. Plus it takes less time

    If a client doesn't understand this, then either there's a problem with your delivery or they just want work for free, which is a huge red flag.

    Mike Monteiro says it much more eloquently than I... http://www.abookapart.com/products/design-is-a-job

    2 points
    • Juan Velasco, 7 years ago

      Paul, thanks for your reply. I couldn't agree more.

      I think most of the time agencies rely on spec work as a way to seduce a "client". And a lot of clients expect to see spec work as part of the responses and some even include that in the requirements section of their RFP. And let's be honest, it works sometimes, but it is not fair.

      I'm starting to see more and more clients that understand the design process and respect an agency that defends their methodology and make that a differentiator.

      For the rest of the clients, it's our mission to educate them. I'm on that mission but thought it would be interesting to ask openly how other agencies are addressing this problem.

      Thanks again for contributing with your POV.


      0 points
  • Erik LarssonErik Larsson, 7 years ago

    Even though I'm not doing spec work anymore I noticed that when doing it (we were a small studio often going up agains big agencies) the ones I won, I won based on my ability to talk and present solutions verbally. Basically talking more than showing. If you can show that you have a better understanding of their business than the other guy, you're in a good spot.

    If I felt I lacked information I usually called a junior consultant in at the company to get some more info directly from them about the business and its business objectives. Another thing I did sometimes was calling a competitor or someone in the same field.

    In my opinion it was always never the question of lacking design assets or churning out a bunch of visuals. It's my understanding that if you can present yourself as a business partner rather than a service provider, your odds are a lot better at winning their business.

    0 points
  • jj moijj moi, 7 years ago (edited 7 years ago )

    I worked at agencies that their business model is to chase those bids with governments. With the government, there's no way around RFP - it's required by law.

    It's useful if you have a big team. We have specialists who are already good at creating pitches insanely fast... and good. Since we've been doing this forever, we have a gigantic library of whatever assets you'd need - from stock images to UI kits to furniture props to costumes to 3D models to motion graphics (work ranges from websites to roadshows to concerts).

    We usually spend 2 days per pitch. 1 researcher and 1 marketer to get background of the client, create quick target group, concept, and story, and find us as many design assets as possible if needed. 1 copywriter to write all make-believe concepts and description here and there. 1 head designer comes up with 3 different approaches and assign to 3 designers. We already have the template setup so it's just applying skin/them on top.

    Assuming you're asking about UX work: 1 manager and 1 head designer goes to pitch with the 3 concepts. Each concept pairs with copywriting and full color mockups, wireframes, interaction design, info architecture, timeline plan, fee proposal, plus next steps of what we could do more for the clients. Sometimes clickable prototype or small videos if we sense that the competitors are strong. No sketches (I only show sketches if it involves logo design). All done in 2 days.

    Of course, the work can only be as good as the limited given work time. After you win the bid, then you can take some time to refine the work.

    What about lost bids? I didn't do it for free - the agency pays me. It's at the agency's cost and they choose this path. The reason why agencies overcharge the won bids is to cover the expense of the lost ones.

    People have different expectations and values in life. I left the agency but honestly, sometimes I miss that hectic work environment, and the opportunity to work on different projects every week. You design like there's no tomorrow. You lose emotions, you sleep 5 nights a week. You don't have friends - 2 people left and new 3 hires weekly. You only care about your work. It's toxic for health but if the projects are interesting and pay well, hell I'll do it again.

    Design, Coffee, Repeat.

    0 points
  • Dylan BaskindDylan Baskind, 7 years ago (edited 7 years ago )

    In general I agree with Paul Best: I always think its a sign of a bad client when they expect design solutions on spec. I think it indicates they don't really understand the design process, or have unrealistic ideas about its time-cost (which, is a potential alarm bell).

    But I had to deal with a similar problem for a long time:

    I was a one-man-band contractor; and occasionally I was lucky enough to be pitching for work with multi-nationals / government etc. which meant, I was competing with large agencies for the work "cool, great, I can offer a better price point!" - but it totally sucked on my time - competing against a whole team in the proposal / spec part of things.

    My solution (since I'm a developer as well as a designer); was a scrappy bash-script that generated a pretty spiffy bespoke website. I ended up having to write far less copy; and waste less time on spec-concepts - but it really got a client's attention; and tended to win more jobs. Now it certainly didn't improve the maturity of the design solutions - but heck, solving the underlying design problems (i.e. deliberation + iteration; rinse and repeat) was the actual value of the contract!

    This was a hack of course. It was window dressing. And there was upfront time investment in building the script. But I found it a useful shortcut. It saved me a hell of a lot of time, demonstrated my proximity to digital in general, and was a more compelling frame for presenting digitally oriented concepts.

    (I'd be remiss, if I didn't plug at the end, that this idea eventually became a product: https://qwilr.com).

    0 points