How to Say No to Spec Work

No matter how good the economic forecast is, clients always look for a bargain. The best deal in creative services, unfortunately, is asking people to work on spec. And it’s not just freelance designers or small firms that get suckered into the spec nightmare; big, publicly held ad agencies create whole campaigns in hopes of landing major accounts.

So how do you sell your services without giving away the farm? "The Art of Self Promotion" newsletter (, published by frequent HOW Design Conference speaker Ilise Benun, offers the following tips on how to avoid slipping into the spec trap when you first speak with a prospective client:

1. Listen more than you speak. This will help you restrain your enthusiasm (or desperation). Plus, you’ll get more information, which you’ll need for the project.

2. Offer a paid brainstorming meeting instead of a free interview or portfolio review. Explain to the client that she’ll benefit much more from a brainstorming session than a mere portfolio presentation. Then, even if you decide not to work together, the client will have some good ideas and you’ll be compensated for your time and idea-generation.

3. Don’t go against your gut feeling. If red flags are waving in your face, indicating a difficult client, don’t pursue that client, even if you’re hungry. You’ll be the one paying in the end.