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Speculative Creative Bidding: Normal or Nonsense?

If you’re not in my world, it’s hard to believe that the video above isn’t a wild imagining of what it’s like to work in the creative space. But I kid you not, this isn’t wild: it’s wildly accurate. In the creative industries, it’s not uncommon to have to pitch against others for ‘winning’ work. Sometimes, even being required to pitch for clients you have already secured! This is called “the speculative creative bidding process” and, although it happens in all sectors not just creative ones, it’s particularly abusive towards creatives because in order to bid for the work, the agency or freelancer needs to come up with the ideas they will pitch and when you’re talking about advertising, marketing, video production…well…the idea is the most valuable part. And it should be the result of work done over many billable hours.

When clients send out an RFP (request for proposal) what they are saying is “come up with the most valuable part and then we’ll see if we want to pay you for it”. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s how we read it and define “proposal”. My proposals go like this: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth and I propose to be the person to create this for you.” If you’re coming to the meeting with many billable hours’ worth of creative work already under your belt, then perhaps that’s more than the client was expecting.

While speculative work is a common practice, many businesses say no thank you. Like in the video above, my position is that I’m going to start providing my services on day one so you need to pay for them on day one.

Easy for me to say, though, right? How do I propose that this issue be addressed if you’re going to actually secure new business? I find most problems have the same solution: expectation management.

If asked to come to a pitch with specific ideas for responding to the brief, I tend to just let the client know that I’m looking forward to introducing myself and will come with a capabilities deck to show how I plan to address their brief rather than coming with the actual plan. Then we’re on the same page about what they can expect. This means you either need a portfolio of existing work you can show them or you can come with mood boards of visuals you didn’t create in order to support your vision. But this is all very high-level theoretical stuff because I don’t recommend coming with “the big idea” already created.

Pitching happens in every industry and I’m not saying we should expect the luxury of someone signing a contract just to start the relationship. You should fully expect to put some time into pulling together a pitch. We still must woo potential clients and should never be too proud to pitch for business. The only thing I’m a proponent for adjusting any expectation that actual work should be done as a tester before the decision is made. I say no to work on this basis and I don’t recommend it in any sector.

There is ONE exception and that is when you choose to create something on spec in order to open a door yourself. On more than one occasion, I have had an idea which I believe will work for a certain business or industry and I ask to pitch, even without any knowledge about whether they’re looking or not. Sometimes it drives results, sometimes it doesn’t but when it’s you initiating it, the process can be fun and rewarding. And without a brief to go by, you can have the freedom of a no holds barred approach.

Alternatively, sometimes this is how film/TV production works. A production house or freelancer can make the full piece before then going on to sell it to a studio or network and this, too, I would categorize as speculative.

Whichever way you cut it, I wish you favor and success in your pitching!

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