For creative professionals, the concept of spec work is nothing new. In fact, novelists, filmmakers, and artists have long been expected to produce a brilliant piece of work for free in the hopes of being “discovered.” What many non-creatives fail to realize, however, is that spec work has also translated to business-based creative work, as well.
When a professional is asked to work without being paid as a type of trial, it falls in the speculative category. The worker is expected to complete an assignment with the promise of being paid only if the piece is accepted. This could be in the form of a contest or trial assignment or it could be modus operandi for a company, which has a policy in place to only pay for what it uses.
Spec work isn’t all bad, however. In fact, some of the most successful creatives in business today regularly work on spec. Here are a few pros and cons of spec work.
Pro #1: Build a Portfolio
For newbies, spec work can serve as a great way to get a foot in the door. Even with a college degree and experience in the business world, a freelancer can find his proposals and networking attempts are completely ignored. He may consistently find himself battling competitors who have far more experience, keeping him from ever being considered.
By working on spec, professionals have a chance to clearly demonstrate they can ably tackle the task without meeting some long list of requirements. They get the chance to show what they can do and because the opportunity doesn’t promise to pay, often much more established professionals won’t even try. Best of all, even if an artist isn’t chosen, the rights to that creation remains his, allowing him to add it to his portfolio, possibly being instrumental in landing future jobs.
Con #1: Working for Free
Perhaps the most important drawback of working this way is that you’ll be playing the odds each time. No matter how talented you are, you simply will find you aren’t chosen more often than not. This could be because the company chose someone else over you, but often they opted out of the project altogether. They may have run out of money halfway through or the company’s CEO decided he wanted to use an internal team for the project, among many other reasons.
When you choose to accept a spec work project, you’re accepting the fact that you may not be the person they choose. This means the hard work you put into the project will be unpaid. This doesn’t mean the opportunity is completely wasted, however. Each project gives you a chance to hone your skills, as well as giving you an additional work sample. You’ll also retain the rights to the project so if it can be tweaked and submitted elsewhere, you may find a way to be paid, after all.
Pro #2: Higher Pay
While it isn’t always the case, often spec work assignments pay better than those that pay for work performed. Media outlets and businesses know that talented creatives expect to be paid for their work, so they strive to make the opportunity as lucrative as possible to attract a large number of applicants. A professional should balance out the potential payout for a freebie, as well as investigating just how much free time he has to pursue it. If a spec assignment pays four times as much as he usually makes, it may be worth taking the chance on it.
In addition to the short-term payout, a professional should consider the long-term benefits of winning the assignment. Winning the job may mean years of great work at top pay, making it well worth taking the chance. Contrast this with being paid a set fee for a one-off assignment that won’t lead to additional work and the unpaid opportunity is well worth it.
Con #2: Open to Scams
The Internet has given fraudsters the opportunity to work the system, reaching out to creative professionals through crowdsourcing and online job boards for assignments. These jobs may seem extremely lucrative on the surface, but professionals later find that they lead nowhere. They provide concepts, designs, or content, only to later find it has either been used in its entirety or tweaked just enough to make it seem different.
There are things creative professionals can do to protect their work, such as providing extremely low-resolution versions of images or putting content in PDF or .jpeg format. Since this isn’t a fail-proof solution, however, professionals should be careful about participating in spec work situations, making sure they’re truly legitimate before submitting.
Pro #3: Better Opportunities
For professionals at all levels, spec work can open up new career opportunities, taking them to the next level. It could mean a chance to go from performing work for small startups to participating in projects for large multinational corporations. Once a worker has achieved that step up, it can put him in a position to go after additional corporate jobs.
By choosing spec work by the opportunity, a professional also protects himself against falling prey to a scam. Often these jobs are more competitive, though, which means there may be a multistep application process that takes more time than smaller opportunities.
Con #3: Missing Paid Opportunities
When a worker chooses to work on spec, he’s wasting time that he could have spent working on paying jobs. Even if this means taking lesser-paying jobs, it’s better than working for free. Over time, a freelancer may find he’s spent so much time chasing spec work, he’s missed repeat opportunities to land higher-paying gigs.
If a professional chooses to work on spec, this should be combined with jobs that have guaranteed payment. An occasional spec job may provide a bit of variety, giving professionals the opportunity to stretch creatively. However, to be truly profitable, freelancers should focus primarily on work opportunities where pay is guaranteed. Like any other service professional, a creative worker’s time and skills are valuable and should be treated as such.
Working on spec can be a great way to access opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise have been available. But because payment isn’t guaranteed, a professional can find that he is putting in an excessive amount of work without being paid for it. For that reason, freelancers should focus on jobs with guaranteed payment, only accepting spec work when it can take them to the next level in their careers.