Prove It: Handling Tests and Spec Requests from Clients
I was called recently about a freelance job for a local corporate entity and met to speak with the marketing director. After a few days, I received an e-mail informing me I was one of six “finalists” for the assignment. The message contained a list of several advertising campaigns, a rebranding of the logo, signage and billboards. It said all finalists were to do these for a presentation in two weeks. My first thought was…not fit to be printed here.
I contacted the marketing director and asked if he was serious about asking for such an amount of work, in such a short amount of time, on speculation. I pointed out that no bid had been discussed and without knowing the fee structure, even working on speculation was too risky. He replied that I could do as much as I wanted, but the person who did the most would probably win the assignments.
I asked if he was willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement that indicated I was to retain the intellectual property. He replied that the legal department was “out of town” and wouldn’t “be back in time.”
I knew what they were trying to do, so I wrote up a marketing plan that showed why the outline they had handed out was flawed and how I would approach it. I did not design one thing they asked.
Watch Out for Idea Phishing
Showing up at the appointed time, I sat in the reception area with another designer and asked if she had done all the assignments.
“Yes!” she replied. “I really need the work!”
After she came out of the conference room, running by me with tears in her eyes, I was escorted in where several people sat, opened my portfolio and went over past campaigns that matched the corporation’s needs, then pointed out why their original plan was flawed. Several people nodded their heads in agreement as I spoke.
“Well,” asked a man I had never met, “where’s the designs?”
“I don’t work on speculation and I could not get a non-disclosure agreement,” I said in a professional manner. “My past work speaks for itself and I have plenty of recommendations if you doubt my professional abilities.”
The man was visibly angry. “Did you take your current position with the understanding you wouldn’t be paid for two weeks and you had to come up with a year of marketing initiatives?” I asked, knowing I was dead in his eyes.
He jumped up and stormed out of the room. The others in the room nodded sheepishly at me and slunk out.
I knew the former creative director, who had warned me that the man who had stormed out was idea phishing. I knew that before she ever told me, but wanted to play it out and show them I wasn’t going to fall for it. I felt better, but what about those other “finalists” who spent two sleepless weeks slaving to get the job with no mention of a fee? You can bet the best ideas were given to the lowest bidder to execute.
In Freelance, Everyone Is Gambling
One can argue that hiring a freelancer is a gamble. A new client is also a gamble for a freelancer. I have hired well-known freelancers who turned out to be unprofessional. A waste of time and money is aggravating. If you are working on a tight budget and timeline, a setback of a bad freelancer can be very costly. The same can be said for not being paid for a finished assignment by an unscrupulous client. But, are these tests that are popping up more and more frequently real tests for real jobs?
If you look for work on oDesk or eLance, you are more likely to find assignments that have “tests.” For a series of designs, the client might ask one design. If you are a writer, it may be writing an assigned piece of copy. Once the client has it, there is little you can do, as reporting suspected spam and phishing is limited on several sites. A good way to judge the sincerity of the request is to look at the record of jobs listed vs. the amount of jobs actually assigned.
How Do You Spot The Serious Clients?
A serious client respects your time and efforts and will consider your experience. You will rarely be asked to work for free for the always-insulting promise of “more work later.” If they truly want a test, it will have some rate of pay in exchange for the rights to the ideas rendered.
If you doubt a client, doing some research can shed a lot of information. Look them up on LinkedIn. What is their history? Are there former employees you can send a message and ask about the client’s history with freelancers? Are you a member of an organization where others might know about this client? Post to the group’s discussion board and ask.
Unfortunately, with the state of business and an abundance of freelancers around, clients can ask for tests and plenty will heed the call. They might not be the most professional of the lot, but that’s why many clients ask for tests…they can’t afford the reliable professionals. In the long run, you get what you pay for.