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Why Spec Work Is a Four-Letter Word

These days, it seems that every other Request for Proposal is asking for speculative work. We enjoy receiving RFPs as much as the next firm; we just don’t think requiring creative companies to provide specific recommendations to a prospect’s marketing challenges – based on information gleaned in an RFP – is fruitful. Or ethical, for that matter.

I recognize that developing free creative ideas is, in fact, expected in some parts of this industry. Especially when millions of account dollars are at stake. But most local Requests for Proposals are measured in thousands of dollars.

When a proposal recipient is required to demonstrate creative abilities in order to solve a prospect’s particular needs – as defined by the RFP – it’s called spec work. Spec work might include sharing specific strategies, ideas, concepts, or designs. This practice is something that the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), comprising over 22,000 designers from more than sixty countries, strongly opposes. So it’s not a personal thing.

Unfortunately, all the information required to thoughtfully respond to a specific marketing challenge is never provided in an RFP. Which means any firm that chooses to participate in this process is simply offering up superficial solutions. They may look fine on the surface, but they’re never going to get at the real problem. Some firms think that by asking follow-up questions directly to the prospect you can overcome this information deficit. But you can’t. And then, of course, the RFP authors – to promote the idea of a reasonably fair process – invariably share their follow-up answers with all recipients. You can see how it starts to get a little murky.

Even if an RFP did provide all of the information needed to arrive at creative solutions, the firm willing to spend the most amount of free time developing their thin ideas generally wins out. Now I’m all for firms demonstrating passion (and hard work) to garner new business. But do you really want to hire the firm with the most amount of free time on its hands? If I’m on a selection committee, I’d simply be looking for the best firm to handle my project – which is usually a very busy one.

Those in the position to develop and write RFPs need to rethink their intentions. You don’t need to see spec work to find the right fit. You just need to trust the right process. Respondents should be asked to demonstrate how their collective experience, knowledge, and approach to your assignment will benefit your project. Asking for schedules and costs is perfectly acceptable, which is why a Request for Qualifications is a better approach. Once you’ve short-listed firms, invite them in for one-on-one interviews. Then ask the right questions of each firm. Good firms will also take the opportunity to ask questions of you. A clear favorite will emerge – and with a working relationship already established.

I’m not sure why companies continue to ask for spec work. I’m guessing it’s mostly because they don’t know any better, not because they’re intentionally trying to treat creative folks like prostitutes (come to think of it, I’ve heard that even hookers negotiate their fees up front). But no matter the reason, the result is the same: they’re selling their projects short and thereby compromising outcomes.

I also don’t understand why creative firms in our community continue to respond to and embrace this unethical practice. Maybe offering eye candy is the only way they can win business – by outdoing their competitors. But you should be looking for firms that can outthink the competition. Then, and only then, will you see results.

How Design Can Make You Thinner

A designer friend of mine recently called this video to my attention. It reaffirms the value of design in the realm of public spaces.

It’s amazing how a really fun concept can influence people’s behavior. Take a look—I think you’ll find it interesting: Staircase vs. Escalator

Express to Brighten Beach

Gothamist has photos of typos in the New York City subway system. I used to get all smug and superior about such things; now, I just take solace in knowing that far more people will read the “Brodaway” sign than will ever see my mistakes.

I Could(n’t) Care Less

That there exist people who actually debate this issue (and others just as obvious) continues to amaze me. But there are, in fact, plenty of folks who sincerely believe that usage standards should be determined by mob rule, so I’m not particularly surprised.

For the record, it’s “I couldn’t care less.” And yes, you should care.

The Past Was in Color

Terry Teachout writes about the gradual change from the “clean, crisp surreality of the monochrome image” to full color—and its unintended consequences.

Related: turns out the Russian Empire was in color, too.

Quote of the Week

“More than ever, it’s beauty, delight, and amazement that separates rapidly commoditizing ‘product’ from stuff that’s treasured, adored, loved, and envied.”

Brought to you by Umair Haque over at the Harvard Business Review‘s blog.

There’s a Word for That

My 13-year-old niece called last night to ask me if I knew the word for the dot that appears above the lowercase “i” and “j.”

“It’s a tittle,” she managed to say between giggles. “Tittle.”

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. After all, the French have a word for a man who rubs up against strangers in a crowd (frotteur); the Germans call the space between things Zwischenraum; wabi is the Japanese word for a flawed detail that creates an elegant whole.

There’s even a Scottish word for the act of hesitation before recognizing a person or thing: tartle. Which means that, when I’m asked to read from the eye chart during my next visit to the optometrist, there’s a chance I’ll tartle at the sight of a tittle.

I can’t wait.

Back from the Grave

It’s not often that the last word goes dark for a five-day stretch. But when we do, you can be sure we have a darn good reason.

Since Friday, I’ve been laid low by some variation of the plague; without my ever-vigilant presence at AMD World Headquarters, CK has been forced to actually, you know…work, which prevents him from posting. Yeah, I know, you’d think Shirlee would’ve taken up the slack, but writing is anathema to her. Which is fine, since if it weren’t for Shirlee you wouldn’t be reading this blog at all.

Fear not, fair reader. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming before you know it. Until then, enjoy a list of the world’s worst beers. My favorite comment? “This beer smells like Nebraska.”

What a Difference a Letter Can Make

People often wonder why we writers obsess over phrases, cadences, and the like. They don’t understand when we say that the rhythm is wrong or when we point out, as Mark Twain famously did, the difference between the almost-right word and the right word.

Well then. Here’s a situation in which the absence of a single letter provides an altogether different meaning:

This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.

The Gap in GAP’s Logo Decision

Interesting. It appears that public outcry can change the minds of branding experts very quickly.

I’m not here to defend GAP’s new logo design (or, maybe I should refer to it as the old one, or the one that didn’t take). I’m pretty neutral on the original logo, but it does seem to have a little more personality than the latest version. And I certainly would never bash the use of Helvetica in the new logo (the font they’ve been using in GAP campaigns for quite some time).

But what I find curious about this matter is that the ill-fated new logo was most likely the result of a well-thought-out strategy for change by some smart and experienced branding folks. I can’t imagine a new logo for a $15 billion company being created in a vacuum. On the contrary, I would assume it was the result of some serious thinking, exploration, and scrutiny. Maybe even some user testing. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the brand underpinnings by which it was created can so quickly give way from the weight of public opinion (some of them are even GAP customers). It’s as if the premise for the new logo design never had merit to begin with.

Now I know that the kind of attention this logo received was nothing short of overwhelming (and nothing new for consumer brands changing long-time logos), and it would have been difficult for the VPs overseeing this endeavor to ignore the blogosphere, but it’s very disappointing that the public – in part made of up of us know-it-all design professionals – can reduce a process into a popularity contest. In GAP’s most recent press release, it states apologetically, “We recognize that we missed the opportunity to engage with the online community.” Whatever.

I would have been more enchanted with the GAP brand had they stuck to their guns on this one. Hmmm…I wonder what Steve Jobs would have done in this situation?

Write Like a Professor

I’ve poked fun at academic writing before; what I hadn’t realized is that my mockery comes from a deep-seated animus born of envy.

Be that as it may, there must be something to the charge that much of today’s academic writing is craptacular. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this.


CK Anderson (left) greets the last word‘s very first contest winner.

Noted grammarian Susanna Weise correctly identified all of the errors—and then some—in this notice, winning a set of autographed AMD business cards and a bonus bag of Designer Blend coffee. Weise visited AMD World Headquarters last week to claim her prizes.

During her acceptance speech, Weise was pointed in her disapproval of bad writing. “Faith might save you from the bite of a timber rattler,” she said, “but it apparently can’t prevent random, inexplicable capitalization.”

Where Have All the Creative People Gone?

As I was thumbing the pages of “The Creativity Crisis,” an article in the July 10 issue of Newsweek,  I was surprised to run across a sample of a standard creative test for kids and adults. You simply draw something incomplete on a piece of paper, then give it to someone to complete using their imagination. A tiny scribble can become the Taj Mahal. This was a game I loved playing with my kids (especially in church).

According to the article, kids these days are less creative. Since the late 1950s, a standard of testing known as the Torrance test has been used to measure children’s creative quotient (CQ) score. A recent study suggests that since 1990, CQ scores have been falling, especially among the ages between kindergarten through sixth grade.

Why should we care? Well, according to an IBM poll of 1500 CEOs from around the globe, creativity is now the most important leadership quality for success in business—and because innovative thinking is a necessity in solving all kinds of local and global problems. As new studies come to light, our traditional thinking about left- and right-brain activities is also changing. In fact, it seems that both hemispheres of the brain are required to develop one’s ingenuity skills and that creativity can be nurtured.

Now I don’t feel so guilty about my Sunday scribbles.

Contest Update

As of this writing, no one has risen to the challenge issued here. There can be only two reasons for this: (1) nobody reads the last word, or (2) the reward offered to the winner is not enough to warrant the effort.

Since option no. 2 is clearly not within the realm of possibility, we are left to deduce that, in fact, nobody reads this blog. Which is a shame, really, given the wit and wisdom that fairly oozes from the screen.

In fact, where else where else would you discover that grunting can improve your tennis game? Or read about a “horse race” for women in bikinis? Or learn the ridiculously simple rule for forming a possessive?

So. In the unlikely instance that there is, in fact, some truth to the notion that the reward is somewhat…lacking, I’ve been authorized to sweeten the deal: I will personally call the winner and, using my radio voice, offer my heartiest congratulations.

Our 100th Post

It’s official: you’re reading the last word‘s hundredth post. At this rate, we should reach our hundredth reader in March of 2017.

How to celebrate? By smugly pointing out grammatical errors in a hand-written sign! Consider this one, taped to the altar of the Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following, Jolo, West Virginia:

Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA.

More photographs here.

On second thought, I’ll simply point out that there are at least a dozen problems (grammatical, not theological) with this notice. Whoever correctly identifies the most—using the comments feature below—before 3 p.m. Friday, October 8 will win a complete set of FREE autographed AMD staff business cards!

Let the insanity begin!

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