To spec or not to spec, that is the question. During new business pitches, that is. One of the most debatable things to do during new business pitches is whether showing speculative work is beneficial or dangerous. Don Draper famously told a fictionalized Conrad Hilton in Mad Men “Connie, I get paid for that” when he thought Hilton was seeking free advice. That is the danger agencies face when a non-client wants to pick their brains.

I almost told someone the same thing a few months ago when the tone in a new business pitch took an antagonistic turn.  This prospect had an arduous RFP that required days of editing and wanted a meeting two days after the proposals were due.  The process we were asked to follow did not specify what they wanted to see in the final meeting so we prepared mostly case studies and credentials. A half-hour into our meeting I see the prospect doodling, frustrated and finally putting down his pencil and saying “No more case studies, please. We wanted you tell us your ideas. What you would do for us.”

I was tempted to respond as Don Draper did, so I looked around the room for a signal. Often I am the designated heavy because it comes so natural to me. But it seemed that my colleagues were very interested in trying to salvage this meeting.  I let them try to recover and they did exceptionally well.  A few minutes later the prospect was feeling better about the meeting as we tossed out a couple of strategic ideas, all of which were included in the proposal we sent them two days earlier. Yes, they read the proposal so all we did was embellish the ideas somewhat.

We left the meeting feeling a little better, but not optimistic about getting the assignment. In reality we weren’t certain we wanted to either. Our belief was that a prospect who isn’t clear about expectations in a pitch will not likely be more clear once they’re your client.

In this case not doing spec work didn’t get us hired by someone we realized we wouldn’t want to work for anyway. As a media guy there’s a certain amount of spec work that I find is helpful. I’ll sometimes present the construct for a proprietary customer segmentation, but not the outcomes or the recommendations it would suggest. Not all media folks do what I do, so I’m not sure what spec work a different media person would prepare.

Have you had a similar situation? How did you handle it and what was the outcome?