The jargon refers to a practice to which few will confess-in essence, preparing creative work at the shop's own expense in exchange for the opportunity to win a piece of business.
In the long run, the odds of gaining a long-term client may be slightly better than winning the $10 million Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.
The problem is classic in the industry, and certainly not unique to the promotion agency business.
Top-level agency executives say the practice detracts from the industry's professionalism because it stymies an agency's ability to build strong and continuous relationships with a client. The result is work that isn't always top notch.
"If you do spec properly it costs a tremendous amount of money [with research costs]," says Victor Imbimbo, ceo of Hadley Group, New York.
"If you believe in spec presentations, you must believe that people just come up with ideas." Just the opposite, "I feel strongly about developing a relationship based on continuity."
Those at greatest risk to participate in the practice are smaller, hungrier and sometimes financially troubled shops.
"If they are a small organization and have nothing better to do, they may roll the dice," says Dave Tridle, president of Frankel Services and Council of Sales Promotion Agencies.
Mr. Tridle recalls flying on a moment's notice and two days before Christmas to see a potential client who claimed to be looking for an agency of record. The meeting was really a "cattle call."
Mr. Tridle's agency declined to participate.
"The problem is it's fool's gold," he says. "If that's the way the client is going to do that, there's the chance they will continue to do that. It's off again and on again. If you are doing a lot of spec business, you won't be around."
Mr. Imbimbo says his agency's rule is not to do spec creative but adds he doesn't think spec creative dictates an adversarial relationship. His agency has won a client in a shoot-out in which three agencies were asked to pitch spec ideas.
"We did a spec presentation once. We said it might be worth it to do it once, because the client had an interesting side," says Mr. Imbimbo. "Our upfront alone in man hours to research it was extraordinary because it was a franchise format."
Now, however, "our policy is, we don't do spec. The test proved our philosophy is correct."
Joan Wheatley, director of advertising and sales promotion for Amtrak, says she is committed to the agency-of-record approach and hires different agencies for promotional marketing; database marketing; travel trade promotions; point of sale for travel agents; and media advertising.
"I think what we really benefit from is a group of agencies who stay on top of our business and the travel industry. In our case, we work with different agencies who we feel are expert in each of the disciplines," notes Ms. Wheatley, who added the relationships built by the agency network makes it easier for Amtrak to develop an integrated marketing approach.
Amtrak's agencies of record include Einson Freeman; Epsilon Data Management; E. James White Co.; and DDB Needham Worldwide.
"One of our challenges is the integration of all of this. That integration is something that [all] agencies have to get used to," she says.