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Creative Works Video Production The Future of Work

Do spec ads really work?

By Jessie Tolkovsky

February 4, 2022 | 6 min read

For years, spec ads have been a staple method for directors looking to grow their reels, but they often require big time and financial investment for a spot. Jessie Tolkovsky, marketing and project coordinator at video production agency Gusto.film, has her say on whether, in the age of user-generated content (UGC) and viral TikToks, speculative films are really worth the effort.

Spec ads. Do they really work?

Gusto’s Jessie Tolkovsky asks if spec ads really work

Spec ads. Do they really work?

In short... No.

Well... definitely not no. But it all depends on what your idea of ‘work’ is.

If it’s ‘I’m going to get snapped up by my dream client quicker than you can say ROI,’ you may be disappointed.

By its very definition, ‘speculative’ means involving a high risk of loss. Sure, in the age of rapidly devoured, TikTok-fueled content, an advert doesn’t necessarily need a huge budget to be deemed campaign worthy. But if you’re shooting to get on the radar of the Nikes or Apples of the world, you’re probably going to want to produce a slick, glossy, high-end production. And all that takes time – shoestring budget or not.

But there’s a luxury to the risk of specs. There’s no brief, no guidelines, no rules. And that can open up a whole string of opportunities in a way that commissioned work, quite honestly, usually can’t.

So... is it really worth the investment?

Wow without limits

Cinesite’s CGI spec ‘Beans’ for the subtly dubbed ‘Haynes’ was never picked up by Heinz, or any other notable baked beans company. But its viral success showing off the company’s CG-animation skills – 8.1m views on YouTube within two months, extensive press coverage, opening the prestigious Siggraph computer animation festival – became what Helen Moody of Cinesite calls a “launch-pad” for the company’s next phase of development.

Would a real beans company have ever commissioned and signed off this ad? It’s hard to know. But creating a spec for a fake brand with no restrictions provided for the team was invaluable.

Wanting to diversify from solely VFX into animated feature films, the spec’s notoriety armed Cinesite to quickly open a new animation service in Montreal – and their animation business is now thriving, with another branch in Vancouver and credits on The Addams Family 1 and 2 and this year’s Blazing Samurai.

Beyond viral success, though, Moody says: “Giving the team this untethered chance to wow fertilized the team’s growth as they tested their mettle, workflows and full CG-animation pipeline – while having some fun along the way.” And this is where specs can really shine, allowing your team to integrate and specialize in new tools and techniques that you can’t quite focus on when under the cosh. No matter how big an agency you may be, this kind of creative development will always remain absolutely essential to your growth.

Scaling verticals

It then comes down to experience. As accomplished directors and production houses, it can be tricky to escape your pigeonhole.

So how do you branch out when you can’t evidence your expertise to a client through your existing portfolio?

When freelance filmmaker Toby Kossovo created his spec ‘What Drives You?’ for Father’s Day 2017, he hit major success when BMW’s agency, Laundry Service, picked it up for the car company’s socials. Then they offered him a permanent in-house position working on a series of ads for Nike – one of which got a primetime TV spot. His narrative-driven spec had placed him in the arena of emotional storytelling and other brands had taken note.

Specs provide that springboard to navigate new verticals and throw your hat in the ring.

As Patrick Kizny of Kizny Visuals says: “We did spec work in the past and it has helped us tremendously, but usually indirectly and with a twist. We’ve done a bunch of fragrance shots in an effort to expand toward the luxury products and cosmetics industry. Did it help us win any of these clients? No. But it tremendously helped us land a few jobs for totally different products [consumer electronics] where they had similar stuff in the refs decks.”

What about the majority?

So specs make sense for those of us challenging new arenas. But it’s still a given that your spot being snapped up by your chosen brand is the exception, not the rule. Realistically, it’s the minority that gets the gold prize. So what about the majority?

This was a question we asked ourselves when deciding to produce our own Christmas spec for Heinz last year. Ultimately, we were going for gold – the off-chance that our ad might get picked up by the sauciest brand on the planet, and we did, in fact, get on Heinz’s radar... but we still didn’t win the main prize.

But this was the real treasure: the freedom to create completely unrestricted, to put ourselves out there in a sector and style we’re not known for and produce a passion project that now stands as a flagship piece that will undoubtedly sell in pitches.

So are specs really worth it? No, not if success to you means immediately scoring that primetime spot on TV. But the future benefits they can bring to you, and your team, are really worth much, much more.

Creative Works Video Production The Future of Work

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