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When is Speculative Work not Work on Spec?

When is speculative work not “work on spec”?

This dilemma came up over lunch today with a friend, PhD and New York university marketing professor.

Back Story

Many years ago, R.BIRD developed a service offering called, “Off-the-Shelf.” The premise was simple. For a small, fixed fee, we would take a look at an existing product package design and develop one design-improvement response with rationale for the approach.

We believed this offering would open up a largely untouched market: Smaller companies or teams with limited budgets or planning that might, otherwise, not begin to move forward on any degree of change. In other words: Off-the-Shelf would be a quick-fix, low-resistance solution from a proven resource.

This offering turned out to be wildly UN-successful. Zero interest. No takers. But… there was one completely unexpected side-effect.

We had arbitrarily chosen “Jiffy Mix” as the model we used to illustrate the potential results of the offering. Shortly after publishing the offering on our web site, we received a call from Howard “Howdy” Holmes, President and CEO of Chelsea Milling Company, the makers of Jiffy Mix.

That phone call resulted in a mutually-beneficial and rewarding relationship that still continues nearly a decade later.

Fast Forward

While discussing new business development in present time with aforementioned marketing prof, he made two observations:

  1. Many creative people, including prospective client contacts, resist the idea that an outsider should come in and change things, and
  2. They are visual people. Proving our expertise via case studies with other clients is abstract. Wouldn’t a visualization of what we could do for them, specifically, be more intriguing?

Both ideas hit home, as I recalled the Jiffy Mix experience with Chelsea Milling Company. In that very successful and accidental situation, we had:

  1. Not suggested any immediate need for change, but
  2. Demonstrated, visually, an opportunity for incremental improvement

Proactive Audition

I’ve been a design professional for 35 years now. I’ve always refused any client or prospect suggestion that we show them something up-front without compensation. Never done that. Never will. In fact, I am an early adopter and supporter of the AntiSpec.com community.

In my “Off-the-Shelf” example, there was no client. There was no brief. There was no need or call for solution. Most significanly in the end, the result was extremely positive for R.BIRD and for the “unsuspecting” prospect.

Absolutely: If we take a request from a prospect to “prove” what we can do without compensation. It will never happen here. That’s not going to change, ever.

I expressed this to my marketing PhD friend. He was surprised, but offered the term, “proactive audition,” as a metaphor. When actors react to a call… an audition, they prove themselves with a quick, off-the-shelf performance. It’s not the real script, stage or audience. But, it’s the real you.

Academically Speaking

“The Dieline” claims to be the most popular destination in the world of package design. A good part of its content is “speculative.” Student works. Designer musings.

If a student speculates on what they believe Pepsi packaging could or should be, no one is going to fault them for the effort. But, is that Spec Work? Or is it, “Proactive Audition”?

I think the latter.

The Question

When is speculative work not work-on-spec?

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