The great debate: Does spec creative belong in your B2B marketing RFP process?
by Randy Mitchell, Creative Director
If you’re a sensitive creative, please skip over the next sentence because I am going to use a four-letter word. That offensive term is spec. Sorry. I’m blushing too.
Spec creative is essentially speculative conceptual work that is intended to demonstrate how a prospective agency partner thinks. In this capacity, spec is occasionally required in the B2B marketing RFP process. The company issuing the RFP might challenge the agency to “show us some ideas” based on very limited input.
Some people insist that spec creative is a necessary evil. I can’t agree with the necessary part. But evil
is spot on.
There are multiple reasons spec is unwelcome, and some may surprise you.
Agency strategists, creative and account people will tell you that spec is a bad benchmark. They’re right. That’s because this type of creative is based on speculative input, not true market insights or research.
Agency leaders may also believe that spec is tantamount to “giving away our concepts,” with no guarantee of accreditation or a financial return. To be frank, it is extremely unlikely that the spec creative will be “stolen” and executed. However, it has happened to me on occasion and many other creatives I know can tell their own horror stories. So the fear persists.
One more argument against spec comes from the client side. It’s hard to judge any case based on sketchy facts. That’s what happens when clients use spec creative as a major factor in the RFP decision process. Instead of grounding the evaluation in more concrete criteria, the inclusion of spec turns an important decision into a case of style over substance. Not the best strategy.
Alternatives to spec
I always believe that if you criticize something in your professional life, you should be able to offer a better alternative. In the case of spec creative, here is what I propose.
Instead of including spec in your RFP process, ask the agency for their preliminary recommendations on helping you reach your objectives. Let me be clear, you’ll also need to define your program challenges and objectives in the RFP. This approach is worth the effort because it opens the door to multiple responses, and they are all more valuable and informative than spec.
For example, the agency might provide you with the following:
Creative case studies
These show actual creative thinking in practice. They should align with your program and share the real world results of the programs. In this way, you’ll see the challenges, big idea, tactics and outcome of a very relevant campaign. Most importantly, this thinking is not speculative; it’s tangible.
Proposed creative platform directions
These are truly directions, not executions. They explain in a page or two how you might take the program to market and the strengths of each proposed direction. I create many of these documents for clients to help streamline the process before we jump into concepting and execution. They are always great thought starters and are very well received. In addition, this approach makes the client an integral part of the process.
Those are just two alternatives to spec creative. The agency might also choose to show mood boards, process documents or some other elements that are a better manifestation of their thinking. After all, that’s the ultimate goal.
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