The debate between client and design firm over speculative
creative rages on. Clients ask for it knowing that despite the
opposition to it they are likely to get it. Designers and agencies
curse at the request, acquiesce, then curse again at the debasement
and the outcome.
One of the challenges with offering creative or guidance on the
client's problem without guarantee of appropriate compensation is
what happens after you win. You've just given away your highest
value offering for free, now how do you look the client in the eye
and convince him that your services are worth what you are asking?
Even when you win in a spec situation you set the tone for the
relationship moving forward in which the client dictates and you
respond. You have ceded most of your bargaining power on price
negotiation, and you have demonstrated questionable business
Why Clients Ask
Okay, enough salt in the wound. There is a way out and it begins
with an examination of the reason behind the request. What's
driving it is uncertainty and the need for reassurance. The client
is afraid of making a mistake in his selection of a firm so he asks
the design firm or firms to part with thinking uncompensated as a
test of ability to do the job. The firm responds in an attempt to
offer this reassurance. The good news is there are other forms of
reassurance that can be offered in place of spec creative -
better ones. The bad news is that if you've followed in
the footsteps of most of your peers and have not significantly
differentiated your firm from the competition then your
alternatives won't suffice as often as they might.
Everything Begins with Positioning
You can win without pitching, I often say, but you cannot win
without pitching without positioning. Your first objective
is to have the client see your firm as uniquely qualified to help.
He must acknowledge and value your positioning; seeing a very good
fit between your expertise and his needs. Clients asking for spec
makes sense in a world of commoditized design. If the client cannot
tell one design firm from the next; if none of the firms under
consideration have been able to separate themselves from the
others, then the client will have little alternative to asking for
uncompensated thinking as proof of the best fit.
When the client views one firm as uniquely qualified or at least
far better suited, then often he will move forward with that firm
based on assurances other than spec creative.
Alternatives to Spec
Let's examine some of these other forms of reassurance.
Phased Engagements & Opt-Out Clauses
Put yourself in the client's shoes and imagine having a $500,000
design budget that you are charged with awarding to a firm you have
never met prior to your review and know little about. You'd be
scared too! Even the client's formal review process is an
all-or-nothing gamble. If he makes a mistake he has blown half a
million dollars and his budget for the year. Smarter firms will
recognize this fear and offer something other than a total-budget
engagement as a means to test the fit: a $25,000 first step in the
form of a diagnostic (audit) or creative platform development, as
an example. Included in these phased engagements are opt-out
clauses, where the client can choose to part ways with the agency
at the end of the phase. Firms employing this approach replace the
fear of a $500,000 mistake with the fear of a $25,000 mistake.
Which fear would you rather have?
Phased engagements with well-positioned design firms are
reassuring. Add in opt-out clauses and they become even more
compelling. Now (take a deep breath) consider adding money-back
guarantees to the mix. (exhale) Imagine your competitors are
pitching spec creative for the $500,000 account and you counter
with a $25,000 first step and a guarantee that at the end of the
first step, if the client is unhappy with the results or the fit,
he can choose to walk away, get his money refunded, and go on with
his pitch. Many principals are terrified of offering such a
guarantee, but most of them would have spent $25,000 of internal
resources on the pitch anyway, and would have developed the work
without any client collaboration whatsoever. You risk next to
nothing with this approach and gain a significant competitive
advantage through the reassurance offered.
Process-Framed Case Studies
“Okay,” says the client in response to your offer of a phased
engagement with an opt-out clause and a money-back guarantee, “all
this sounds highly reassuring, but if we go down this road with you
and it doesn't work out, then I'm four to six weeks behind. Why
else should I believe that yours is the right firm for the
“Because we've done this type of work before” is a good answer,
but often it's not good enough. Most of your competitors can show
similar type work in their portfolio. But while showing finished
work is often inspiring and therefore effective early in the buying
cycle, here late in the game when the client is looking for
reassurance he is looking a your wonderful portfolio and wondering
where the bad work is. Further, he's wondering how often you
produce bad or mediocre work relative to your best work. Unless you
show how you routinely and systematically produce great
work, your final outcomes (portfolio pieces) will not offer any
significant reassurance, and reassurance is what the client needs
right now in spades.
You cannot offer this reassurance by talking about how you work
(all your competitors are talking about process, at least briefly)
you can only do it by showing. (very few do) So take your defined
process (that four or five step model on your website with the
interlocking circles and the steps that all start with the same
letter - usually 'D') and frame your case studies around it. When
you show three different case studies that all use the same
approach to problem solving the client will infer that little
variability in process equals little variability in outcomes.
Further, you are likely to hear, “This is the first time any design
firm has ever showed us how they work.”
I can try to convince you how powerful this tool is, but you
need to use it to fully appreciate it. Process-framed case studies
are million dollar closing tools.
Finally, client references are powerful tools of reassurance that
are often employed at the wrong time. The client will be no more
inclined to hire you than the minute he hangs up the phone from
talking to your best reference. Your reference displaces the doubt
in the client's mind with compelling reasons to hire you. From the
moment he hangs up the phone however, doubt seeps back in. Time
your references so they are delivered as late as possible, give the
client as short a window as possible to check them, and ensure you
have a scheduled follow-up call for as soon after he makes those
calls as possible. In that call do not forget to ask him to
In summary, if you can tie process-framed case studies to a
phased engagement with an opt-out clause and a money-back guarantee
you will offer reassurance far beyond what even spec creative can
offer, all while preserving your integrity, commanding a price
premium, and positioning yourself as the expert in the relationship
instead of the order-taker.
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Director of User ExperienceCustomInk
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