A 10-Step Process to Create Your Own Spec Ad

They make great portfolio samples for entry-level jobs

In the advertising industry, a spec ad (industry jargon for speculative advertisement) is an ad created to win an account, with no guarantee of payment from the client. For an aspiring copywriter, writing a spec ad is a way to demonstrate your talents. 

Spec ads are common tools for budding copywriters and new college graduates with little experience. They are a great way to display copywriting talent to a potential client or employer. Most copywriters who use spec ads in their portfolio have limited or no copywriting samples to show in the interview process.

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First, Find an Advertisement to Rewrite

SPEC AD Sample
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You can create a spec print ad, billboard, something online, whatever you want. But, for the purposes of this exercise in growing your portfolio, we'll stick with print. Find an ad you feel is missing something. Are the words not packing a punch? Does the headline fizzle out? Is the call to action weak? Great, now you're going to use this original ad to create your own version. A better version.

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Next, Set Up Your SPEC AD Page

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Prepare a simple text page with your name, the product, and the words spec ad in the upper right corner. Be sure to include the words "SPEC AD" because your goal is to show a potential client or employer your talent, and not to deceive them into thinking you worked with this particular client.

For example, if you were using an original Kraft print ad as your spec ad, leaving off the words "SPEC AD" leads the potential client/employer to believe you worked with Kraft Foods and its agency to create the original.

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Get Ready to Write

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On the left side of the page, you'll begin writing the ad in your own words. A spec ad won't be effective if all you do is change one line of the ad. You need to reinvent it.

You want to create your own version of the ad. That means you start from scratch to give your take on how you would have written the ad. The purpose of your spec ad is to show off your own creative vision as well as your copywriting talent.

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Begin With a Powerful Headline

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Start with your headline. Simply type HEADLINE: and hit ENTER.

Type in your headline for the ad.

A headline's purpose is to grab the potential customer's attention. It also tips off readers on what it is you're trying to sell—be it the product, image, or an idea you want to convey. The best headlines for ads often work hand in hand with a visual, but that's not always the case. Do you need a visual? Can you make the headline work without one? Think it over. It is how you are grabbing attention, so do it well. 

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Use a Subhead When Necessary

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You may want to include a subhead. If so, type SUBHEAD.

Subheads are not always used and they're not always necessary. But you will want to use a subhead if the headline is enticing but somewhat vague. A subhead can quickly clarify what you want the reader to take from the headline, and it serves as a great lead into body copy. 

Subheads come in handy when you're writing a brochure because your headline invites readers into the brochure (example: Rid Your Home of Unwanted Pests!) and then subheads call out each individual section (such as Company Info, Experience, Consultation, etc.).

Headlines are usually in bigger font size than subheads. They get top billing, so-to-speak. Generally, in a print ad, the headline stands alone better than offering up a subhead underneath.

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Craft Your Ad's Copy Carefully

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On to the copy of your ad. Type COPY.

Now you're ready to get to the meat of your spec ad. A powerful headline captures the reader's attention, and the purpose of the copy is to keep the potential customer reading all the way to the end. It is your chance to captivate the reader and get them to call, visit a website, or even run down to the store. 

Write your copy and be sure to space the lines just as you would want them to read in the final version. In other words, you don't want to create a 10-sentence-long paragraph. Break up the sentences into smaller paragraphs so they're easy to read—just as they would be in the final printed version of your print ad.

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Congratulations—You Have Created Your First SPEC AD

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That's it—you've officially created a spec ad. You have a simple white piece of paper. At this point, you may be wondering if you need to create a full-color print ad so it looks like what you would see in a magazine, but copywriters are not expected to be graphic designers.

Your talent lies in writing, and the copy is what a client/employee is going to analyze when interviewing you, not the design. If your copy isn't strong, it's not going to matter how many pretty colors and pictures you put into the design. Focus on your copy.

Even experienced copywriters have basic text ads in their portfolio. Many copywriters update their portfolios to include their latest projects. These projects may not be in final printed form, so all they have to show off is the text they wrote. So don't shy away from text and get caught up in the lack of visuals. However, you can dress up those text ads to make them stand out in your portfolio. And if you can, consult an art director. 

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Dress Up Your Ad for Your Portfolio

Portfolio SPEC AD Side by Side
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You'll place the original ad and your version side-by-side in a print portfolio (and save it as a PDF to upload to your website) for comparison. Take a decorative piece of paper and place it on one side of your portfolio page. You can do the same on the opposite side of the page. The basic layout and style are identical. 

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Use the Original Along With Your Spec Ad Version

Portfolio SPEC AD
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Place the original ad you chose to rewrite on one page and your spec ad version on the opposite page. Start about one inch off the decorative paper to give you a nice clean edge. Scan in the original ad as well and place it side-by-side on your website or wherever you store your online portfolio.

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You've Done It...Now Do More

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You're finished! You now have your first spec ad in your portfolio and are ready to add the next one to grow your portfolio.