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Ad Agency Video on Spec Work Belies Reality Facing Creators

Posted by Rebecca Blake on November 18, 2015

A video and blog post on spec work produced by Toronto advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo is burning up the Internet. In the video, an actor approaches different businesses unfamiliar with work on spec (for the most part) and asks for free products or services – a cup of coffee, a breakfast, architectural design, picture framing, and personal training. The incredulous reaction from the business owners doesn’t deter the actor, who trots out business jargon to justify his request: “You guys can make me a spec breakfast, right? And if I enjoy it, I’ll make you guys my ROR, my Restaurant of Record…” He even pushes the personal trainer to give him the intellectual property rights to the training techniques. The video concludes with a challenge to ad agencies: “It’s time we all said no to spec.”

As Adweek reported, the video was created by the agency founder Zak Mroueh for presentation at Strategy magazine’s Agency of the Year event.  Mroueh told Adweek that Zulu Alpha Kilo hasn’t done a pitch requiring spec work in five years, freeing up time and resources to work on clients’ brands rather than on generating new business. The strategy seems to have worked for the agency; they reported that they’ve tripled their staff and gained high-profile clients such as Google and Corona.

It’s heartening to witness an ad agency pushing back on spec work. Unfortunately, the equation is quite different for the professionals contracted by ad agencies to create content. As reported in numerous publications, such as Mashable, New Business Intel, and the LA Times, ad agencies are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to generate content for their clients. The Mashable article’s glib description of, “hordes of talented people” who are “willing to work on the cheap and on the fly,” belies the experiences reported by many professionals. Requests for work on spec or free have skyrocketed (see our articles on “Spec Work Documented on Social Media” and “Artist Dies of Exposure”), undervaluing the illustration, design and animation professions.

“There’s a double standard being applied to the professionals who create the content that drives the advertising industry.”

Crowdsourced content is being leveraged by a new breed of ad agency, such as Victor & Spoils. Victor & Spoils, which launched in 2009, prides itself on being an agency which collaborates with brand fans – or as their website describes them, “lunch ladies” – as well as seasoned advertising pros, pulling in fan feedback on brands at the outset of the creative process. The agency relies heavily on crowdsourcing. A 2009 article on Wired.CO.UK described how the agency used platforms such as crowdSPRING, 99designs, and GeniusRocket for projects ranging from brand strategy work to TV spots. (The agency even used crowdsourcing for its original logo and website design.)

Victor & Spoils also utilizes their network of professional creatives to generate content. In the Wired article, agency founder John Winsor described their process: 50-100 of their “creative department” are invited to contribute to a project, and from the submissions, 6-12 finalists are selected to compete for the final product. Only the finalists and winner are compensated. Of course, the participants give up any pretence of ownership of intellectual property; the agency’s terms stipulate that any contribution is work-for-hire. Winsor complains that only 10% of the creative output is any good, requiring “strong creative direction” from agency staffers.

The crowdsourcing model used by Victor & Spoils isn’t unique. Talenthouse (“the world’s largest creative department”), Tongal (“The World’s First Studio-on-Demand“), and GeniusRocket (“A creative video agency powered by a curated crowd”) all rely on content inexpensively provided via crowdsourced projects. The trend makes the acclaim of Zulu Alpha Kilo’s anti-spec video bittersweet. It’s inspiring to see the video which casts a spotlight on spec work receive so much recognition. However, if the example shown by Victor & Spoils reflects a growing trend, there’s a double standard being applied to the professionals who create the content that drives the advertising industry.

Below: a screenshot from Zulu Alpha Kilo’s video. This guy can’t believe he was asked to work for free.

Zulu Alpha Kilo no-to-spec video

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