Would you work for free? ‘Say no to spec work’ viral video sparks conversation

WATCH ABOVE: Architects don’t give away their blueprints. Diners don’t fork out free meals. So Toronto ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo asks why so many creative agencies sign away their ideas.

Nobody wants to work for free. Yet in some fields, “spec” work has become an industry standard — one that a Toronto ad agency is fighting to change with a new video.

It shows the real-life reactions of a barista, chef, personal trainer, architect and frame-maker when a “customer” asks for spec work.

“I don’t have $1.75 in my budget right now just to try one coffee, willy nilly, to see if I like it or not. That’s why I would like a spec one,” the man in the video tells a female barista.

“So you don’t do spec frames?” he asks the frame-maker. “Then how do you get clients?”

He’s told by the architect that the sheer concept of what he’s asking for is completely a**-backwards.

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Countless agencies and designers agree to spec work each year.

It’s an “old antiquated process that dates back to the Mad Men era,” says Zak Mroueh. He’s the founder of Zulu Alpha Kilo, which created the video for Strategy Magazine’s Agency of the Year Awards in Toronto this week.

Spec work, as Mroueh describes, is “when a non-pro bono/charity client, in other words a mainstream advertiser, asks for ‘free creative work’ in a pitch situation…Sometimes there’s an honourarium of $5,000 so that the client owns the idea. Sometimes there’s nothing. But the value of the work is quite often in the hundreds of thousands (in time and hard costs).”

WATCH: An explainer of “spec work” 

Mroueh says 80 per cent of the pitches his agency is asked to participate in involve spec creative. This past week alone, he received three invites to pitch.

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The seven-year-old company stopped accepting spec work five years ago, though. Mroueh explains he doesn’t feel it’s a good use of his staff’s time, nor the best way for a client to pick a partner.

READ MORE: ‘It’s saying to us is that your time and your work don’t deserve any sort of compensation’: Design industry rebels against Ottawa’s logo contest

While the video is humorous, Mroueh is serious about the underlying message.

“We just want to create a conversation.”

It seems to have worked. The video has resonated with members of the creative world, who shared their support for the #saynotospec idea.

The video has already received nearly half a million views since being posted on Thursday.

Clients and agencies are encouraged to share their own spec stories. The best ones will be featured on

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