How Spec Work for Real Clients Can Lead to a Job

photo illustration, woman with thought bubbles over her head
Getty Images

So you've always wanted to work in the advertising industry. Maybe you don't have any experience. Maybe you do have experience but you don't have any published advertisements you can showcase in your portfolio. It's the catch 22 of needing published work to get a job, but needing a job to get published work done. What do you do? The dilemma can seem overwhelming. Many people figure they'll never get a job in advertising for this very reason.  But there are ways around this obstacle, and ​speculative ads are the key.​

Spec Work (aka Speculative Advertising)

In a nutshell, spec ads are ads you've written or produced yourself on behalf of a client, but which is not actually requested by that client. Whether it's Nike, Apple, Ford, Stella Artois, or any other big brand, you do work for that company without them asking for it. It's just a simple way to put work in your portfolio that you believe would have an impact on that client. 

Try Doing a Spec Ad Right Now

It's not difficult. You have all the money you could ever want to spend. You have an endless list of clients, and media opportunities. It's a clean slate. Try out this exercise. Look around the room where you're reading this article right now. What do you see? A lamp? Dog food? A jacket? A computer?

Quick. Create an ad for one of the brands you see around you. It doesn't have to be polished, just good. Done? Great, you've just created a SPEC AD, as it's known in the industry. These ads show a potential employer/client your talent without you having to have a published piece.

If you really want to spice up your portfolio, pick a print ad out of your favorite magazine. Pick the original ad apart. What elements are missing? Is the call to action strong enough? Now, rewrite that ad in your own words.

Calling Out Spec Work is Essential

If a potential employer is looking through your portfolio, they may be very impressed to see the number of high-profile campaigns you have produced. "Wow, great campaign for Nike." You cannot let people think that the work you did on spec was ever published. But, you can call out the fact that it is a spec in a good way, by showcasing it next to an existing ad that, in your opinion, is not as good. 

In your portfolio, you'll really want to showcase your rewrite of this ad. Place your SPEC AD on one side of the page and the original ad on the other (so both are side-by-side). When you go into an interview, you're highlighting your talent versus that on the national level.

Smaller agencies are generally more receptive to a portfolio full of SPEC ADS. Don't rule out the smaller agencies in your search for an advertising position. It's an excellent way to build up your portfolio so you can shed those SPEC ADS in the future.

An Internship Can Get Your Foot in the Door

Another option to consider is an internship at a local TV station, ad agency or a business with its own in-house agency. Most TV stations have their own commercial production services. They write, produce and direct local television commercials and can be a great springboard for future advertising agency work.

Internships at ad agencies are competitive and you should research an agency to see their types of clients. This helps you determine what types of materials they handle so you can build your portfolio appropriately.

Companies with an in-house agency manage most, if not all, aspects of their advertising. They have a complete advertising department that produces all sorts of materials for the company. The only downside is that the in-house agency only produces materials for that one company. That's generally not a problem because the types of materials produced are so varied to promote the company and its products.

Remember, Spec Needs to Be Great

When searching for a position in the advertising industry, especially if you have little or no experience, you'll have to rely on your SPEC ADS to spotlight your ability to do the job. However, it's important to remember that spec work must be great. After all, you chose the client, the medium, the budget, the copy, the images, and everything else. This is your baby.

So, a piece of advice. Make spec work that is impressive because it's done on a low budget, or it's for a really tough client, like an airline or a rental car agency. It's easy to do great work for a killer product like an iPod. Doing work for an airline, well, that's all about branding. 

Good luck.