Ads made for free can be a risky gamble for agencies, filmmakers

Speculative ads are like calling cards to businesses from prospective creative agencies. But the ever increasing expectation of "free" ads is making some ad groups annoyed enough to do something about it.

Spec ads are a controversial practice in the advertising industry, says CBC Ad Guy

A still from a spec ad created by Everdream Pictures for Tesla. The ad was never used by the auto maker, which is famous for not running paid ads for its cars. (Everdream Pictures/YouTube)

Like the controversy surrounding unpaid internships, advertising agencies are having a similar conversation about "spec ads."

A spec ad is a fully-produced, speculative commercial that creative people make for free, in order to win a client.

For example, one made for Johnnie Walker whisky, which was posted online in December 2015, reveals the relationship between two brothers as they walk through the Scottish countryside.

The lavish, cinematic, 90-second spot spared no expense, and created intense emotion as it promoted the brand.

But what earned it more than three million YouTube views was the revelation that it was created and produced by two film students as a spec ad.

Unfortunately, the spot was based on the Johnnie Walker theme "keep walking," which the company recently refocused to "joy will take you further." As a result, the students didn't present their work to Johnnie Walker.

In September 2015, a daring new Tide commercial was posted online. In it, two men enter a church on their wedding day.

But they're stopped at the door by a conservative-looking woman who informs them that she will not allow them to "blemish the sanctity of marriage."

An argument ensues, until she reaches into her purse, pulls out a Tide to Go stick, and removes a stain from one of the men's shirts — pronouncing them both flawless, and sending them into the church with a, "Carry on boys."

It turns out to be another speculative ad, this time from a commercial director. When it was posted online, Tide pointed out it hadn't made the ad, and seemed to minimize the effort by saying it appreciated the work of its "fans."

Ironically, a huge beneficiary of spec ads is the auto maker Tesla, which is famous for never running paid advertising for its cars.

"Gallons of Light," a 2013 ad, was made by another commercial director.

A year later, two recent college graduates posted their "Modern Spaceship" ad. In it, we see a young boy pretending to build a rocket. Then he discovers the Tesla in his father's garage, and believes he's found a real rocket.

Both spec commercials were praised in tweets by Tesla founder Elon Musk, but neither ad was picked up.

And that's what's frustrating for creative people and agencies. They can spend huge amounts of money and time creating spec ads  — often at the request of prospective clients — all for little or no return on investment.

One Toronto agency is so incensed by the issue that it created a video decrying the practice.

In their video, we see a client visiting various workplaces — including a diner, frame shop and personal trainer — asking for free trials of all their products, only to be rebuffed and told that's not how businesses work.

The point the video is making is that no other businesses give away their services for free in order to attract new clients — so why should ad agencies?

But with so many recent high-profile examples of spec ads from students, directors and production companies, it's obvious that some ad people are desperate enough for clients that they'll work for free.

Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio. 


Bruce began his career writing radio commercials for stations in Red Deer, Calgary and Toronto. Then in-house at a national department store, and then ad agencies with campaigns for major national and regional clients. For the past couple of decades, he's been a freelance creative director and copywriter for agencies in Calgary and Victoria. He began his weekly Ad Guy columns on CBC Radio in 2003.


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