Designing in the dark – why we don’t do spec work

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Photo by Remko van Dokkum

Most of us follow convention, most of the time. It is usually the path of least resistance. And being the odd one out can be an uncomfortable place to be.

But sometimes it makes sense to break the mould.

I experienced this first hand recently when we were invited to pitch for a big piece of work with a leading hospitality and entertainment company.

We were aware that other agencies would be presenting speculative mock-ups of how the new brand, website, and other materials might look.

Investing time and energy into producing “spec work” is a surefire way to demonstrate to the prospective client that you are serious about the project.

But it comes with many pitfalls. And the biggest is that you just do not know enough about the project at this very early stage. And so assumptions are made. Placeholder images and text are used. We call it designing in the dark.

Presenting spec work is dangerous because it can become the focus of the entire meeting. Clients can become fixated on the choice of colours or the use of video, for which there is often no real rationale.

You can find yourself defending decisions you do not really believe in, or adding so many caveats to what you have done that your pitch would be better suited to being an academic paper. It is a massive gamble.

This is why at Hotfoot we do not do spec work. Instead we talk through the processes we go through to arrive at great work. We explain how creating work is collaborative and happens in stages.

We talk through how we work with clients to understand the customer value proposition – what makes a brand fundamentally different – and how we then develop a creative brief. We show how the project takes shape in distinct stages with opportunities for feedback and sign-off.

This approach takes some confidence to pull off when you know rival agencies are taking the path most travelled.

But holding your nerve can really pay off. And we have just discovered that we won that piece of work.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette and Lancashire Post.

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