It's reasonable that a company looking for a new advertising agency would want to see what it's going to get before they hire them. Unfortunately, a spec campaign has little chance of moving your business forward. Why? Because a spec campaign is typically developed with only the most dangerous input: the preconceived notions, biases and personal experience of the team creating the work. A pitch process doesn't provide enough time or resources to enable the agency to do the appropriate amount of consumer-insight work. Without proper understanding of the target audience and the marketplace, how can the agency possibly develop an appropriate strategy? Advertisers have long complained that their agencies don't take the time to get to know their business or their customers. Yet many of these same advertisers choose an agency based on a spec campaign developed with shallow consumer insights, if any at all.
Second, you'll get a strategy developed without your input. The best client-agency relationships are collaborative partnerships, where strategies are developed together. If the agency and client have not worked through the process together, the agency may end up at a place very far from what the client expected. And, even if the agency ends up in the right place, the client won't accept it because they weren't on the journey together.
And finally, you'll get really comfortable, safe work. The spec creative process creates an incentive to please you first and consumers second. Remember, the goal is to win your account, which means agencies likely present campaigns that they think you'll really like. The campaigns that usually win in spec shootouts are familiar, comfortable and more direct. These ads are focused on what the advertiser thinks is important. They make the selection committee feel warm and fuzzy -- and finally understood. Unfortunately for pitch-dependent advertisers, the campaigns that usually engage consumers and drive sales are the ones that are surprising and unexpected. They start with what's important to the consumer, not the advertiser.
Let's face it: A campaign that's new and different is hard to buy from people you don't know. The spec shootout eliminates any positive friction between a good agency partner and client. You should hire an agency that will challenge you and fight for the ideas and campaigns that will most likely engage your potential customers and motivate them to action. This kind of relationship allowed us to develop a revolutionary brand strategy for Delta Faucet Co.'s premium brand. The development of our ads for Brizo came through a deep study and understanding of multiple target audiences, as well as plenty of discussions with our Delta clients. Had we presented the idea of a faucet brand as a fashion label in a spec-pitch situation, it's safe to say that the idea -- and our agency -- would have been dismissed.
A better process
So what's a better process? Think about what you're trying to do. Hopefully you're looking for a long-term relationship, much like you do with a potential employee. Think back to when you were interviewing for your CMO job. Did they ask you to sketch out a marketing strategy? Of course not. You couldn't have known enough about all of the variables that needed to be studied to develop an adequate plan. You were judged on your past performance and a rigorous interview process that determined whether you would be a good fit for the organization. You should treat your agency search in the same way.
First, really get to know the firms you're considering. It may be the most valuable time you and they can spend in the selection process. Instead of having the agencies spend ungodly hours developing a campaign that might never be used -- or, worse yet, might be very ineffective -- have them commit to a two-day session of intense interviewing.
Spend time with the agency principals. Interview them individually. Find out what they believe in.
Interview the team members individually. Find out if they really like and respect each other. A cohesive team will be much more productive than one that has trouble getting along. Go out to dinner with the team. Have a beer with them. Find out if these are the people with whom you want to work for the next five to 10 years. Remember, you'll likely have bumpy times with your agency. All good relationships encounter conflicts. Make sure you can work with a group that might present something you won't like.
Still think that a non-spec process is risky? Not nearly as risky as choosing an agency based on a campaign that's designed to win your business, not move your business.