Can talent be evaluated by past work? Depends on the judge
A while back, one of my clients gave my name to a company in need of a copywriter. Ordinarily, there is no greater compliment for a freelancer other than a referral (or timely invoice payments.)
But this time, it was odd.
Unprompted and without any other introduction, the company sent me a lengthy outline of what they needed and asked for a detailed proposal. But they also included a vague PowerPoint of factoids and asked for a “one-page case study brief along with executive summary” based on the slides. I was to submit this “completed client writing exercise deliverable” along with my proposal. After which they’d choose a copywriter, presumably from a few candidates.
In other words, I’d have to do free work in the hope of landing a freelance assignment.
I turned them down, cold.
As the need for creative talent grows outside the realm of advertising agencies, it’s becoming increasingly more common for creatives to be asked to complete an assignment of some sort prior to a job interview — for free, most of the time. Why is this happening in 2019? Is a portfolio of previous work no longer sufficient to judge talent? What happened to the so-called “war for talent” that’s leaving employers supposedly needing help badly?
Of course, to people who’ve worked in ad agencies that participate in competitive account reviews, this is nothing new.
For years, ad agency management has lamented the idea of doing spec creative for a new business pitch. We all know the drill. It’s a variation of, “Here, please paint my house for free. If we like the job you’ve done, we’ll hire you to come paint my house again and we’ll pay.” And while agency executives have pined for mutual disarmament whereeveryone in a pitch refuses to do spec creative, it still happens.
The reason why is simple. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an agency seeking an account or a freelancer seeking a gig — refusing the sample assignment could cost you. I can’t count how many new business pitches I’ve been part of where the person in charge says, “Well, they’re saying we don’t NEED spec creative, but I think it’s best if we had some…”
We live in a world where past performance doesn’t predict future results. In other words, client-side marketers and advertising agencies have a hard time evaluating talent even with a portfolio (in the case of individuals) or client work and case studies (in the case of agencies.)
I’ve done a few spec jobs and writing tests in the past. For copywriters like me, I’ve boiled this down to three reasons why I’m occasionally asked to do free spec work before given a freelance assignment or job interview.
1) The client has a very, very specialized vertical or media tactic that you need to know to hit the ground running — and many people calling themselves copywriters can’t do it
2) The client has a business where they give everyone — engineers, coders, product managers, etc. — an interview assignment
3) Today’s HR people, recruiters, and hiring managers simply have no ability and lack the skills to evaluate creative talent based on a portfolio of past work
In some ways, how we got here is understandable. Today, people call themselves copywriters even if the sum total of their experience is a listicle and a landing page. The rise of a nebulous phrase like “content” has left many companies without standards by which to judge people. Without a transparent hiring process. Without a shared sense of where the creative bar ought to be. And without the ability to put the right people in the right positions.
All of which has left everyone scrambling. There is no war for talent. There is a war on talent. It’s a failure to recognize talent that’s experienced, or talent that’s promising even if it needs a little nurturing.
Or maybe it’s simply the nature of commercial art. After all, bands record demo tracks to get signed to a label. Authors send treatments of their books to lure a publisher. The question is, to what lengths are we willing to share our labor for the vagueness of a trial?
In an industry without professional certifications or agreed-upon standards, most of us in advertising and marketing suck it up and do the spec work if we want the job. It’d be wonderful if everyone — from large ad agencies down to freelance creatives — would collectively say, “Look at the work we’ve done in the past and judge us by that.” We’d all refuse to do spec work and leave the free samples to Costco shoppers.
But that’s just my two cents. My billable hour, however, is worth a hell of a lot more.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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