On-spec proposals are never a good idea – here’s why

I’ve been lucky enough throughout my career to have been recommended to clients by word of mouth. I’ve rarely had to pitch for work, it’s always come to me.

The work I do – writing, marketing, publications, PR – is always well-received. In 16 years of freelancing, I’ve never had a complaint from a client. Lots of compliments, no complaints. However, I’ve never won a pitch from a potential client I’ve seen on spec. Never. In 16 years, I’ve never had a meeting with someone I don’t know, submitted a proposal, and been appointed to execute my ideas for cash money.

Why is my work so well received by the people who know me and pay me, but rejected by the people who contact me out of the blue? Obviously, there’s the very real possibility that my ideas are useless. I may just be really bad at writing proposals. But then I look at my very happy clients and think, hmm, you like my work. I’ve never had a complaint. What’s the issue here?

The cart before the horse

There are two issues, actually. As anyone who works in the PR and marketing industry will tell you, we’re expected to submit all our ideas before we’re hired. We see a potential client, spend half an hour with them, and they ask us to go away and come up with a proposal so they can decide whether to take it forward. But once we’ve submitted our ideas for free, why on earth would anyone want to pay us for them?

The second issue is one of quality. As content creation specialist Peter Labrow from Labrow Marketing asks, “If you’ve been asked to do something for free – are you giving it your best shot? Unlikely, however big the carrot.”

He’s got a very good point. Sitting alone at your desk bashing out ideas that may or may not hit the mark after a half-hour meeting with a couple of head honchos is never going to result in your best work, however talented you are.

A good proposal needs a huge amount of background information to be successful. You need to speak to the people on the ground, not just those around the board table, so you can get a good feel for who they are, what they do and how they do it. To accurately portray an organisation, you need to know it inside out.

When you’re asked to submit a proposal before you’ve been hired to do the work, you’re in a no-win situation. Not only are you working for free, it’s impossible for you to deliver a piece of work that does justice to the expertise and skills you know you have.

Putting it in perspective

To illustrate how ridiculous this situation is, consider these scenarios.

I invite an architect to a meeting and explain that I would like to build a house but I don’t know where to start. I need a plan. “Of course,” says the architect. “I can do that.” “Great!” I say. “Go away and draw me a plan of a house and then I’ll decide if I like it or not.” “Yes, that will cost you £1000,” says the architect. “ONE THOUSAND POUNDS?!” I reply, horrified. “You want me to PAY you for this plan? What if I don’t like this house?” So the architect goes away and draws some sketches to give me an idea of what the plans would look like. “That’s not what I wanted at all,” I say. “In the half hour we spent together, you completely failed to understand exactly what I want from a four-bedroom home for me and my family. They don’t even look like real plans. You are awful. I will not be taking this project forward.”

In scenario two, I decide to get married, so I call a wedding planner. “Hello!” I say. “I’m getting married. I have no idea where to start, I need a table plan, table settings, colour scheme, dress, the works. Can you help?” “Of course!” Says the wedding planner. “My time will cost you £1000.” “ONE THOUSAND POUNDS!” I exclaim. “But you haven’t even sent me your ideas yet! I need to see a full proposal including the types of fabric you’ll use, who will be working on this project and why, and a full breakdown of costs. Then – and only then – will I decide whether I will pay you!” So, after our half hour chat, the wedding planner writes a schedule of my special day and estimates how much it will all cost. “Awful,” I say. “You have failed spectacularly to understand the day I had in my head, and there is no way I would spend that much on a dress. I will not be taking this project forward.”

A lucky escape

Will the architect or the wedding planner kick themselves because they didn’t spend days coming up with the final solution in the hope that I may decide to pay them for it? Of course not. They’ll be counting their blessings that they had a lucky escape. I don’t blame them. I sound awful.

Yet in marketing and PR – and the creative industries in general – we’re expected to submit our ideas after a cursory meeting before any money changes hands, and those ideas will be used to judge our worth.

“I know doing speculative work is fairly common, but I disagree with it ethically and commercially,” says Peter. “It’s wrong to expect someone to do something for nothing when it’s their trade, and it lowers profitability across the board.”

Just say no

So what’s the alternative?

Sam Flanagan is managing director of Blueprint Web Technologies. His approach is to focus on the how, not the what. “I think that successful businesses concentrate on describing their processes and values in a proposal, rather than giving away specific ideas,” he says. “You might include a small example of how you intend to apply your process to deliver value to a particular client, but the focus should be on the strength of your process itself. This should also mean that you can get more proposals out with less effort.”

Peter lets his work speak for itself. “My approach is to provide for up to two sales meetings without cost,” he says. “Then, if they want to engage, the meter is running, unless there’s some specific reason why the sales cycle will be longer. I have an extensive portfolio, and if that doesn’t swing it no amount of free designs or concepts will.”

So, next time someone asks you to submit a proposal before they’ll consider hiring you, just say no. Explain that you are happy to see them to discuss their requirements and answer their questions on how you approach your work. Direct them to your website, send them your portfolio, or refer them to past clients who will vouch for you. And if they like what they see, they will hire you. You’ll feel valued, you’ll be committed, and you’ll prove your worth by delivering a successful campaign.

There is no value in giving your ideas away for free.