what is a spec ad
Production & Filmmaking
December 23, 2021

Spec Ads: What They Are, Why You Should Make Them and How

By Jonathan Mateer 8 min read

Highlights

  • Spec ads are non-commissioned commercials that can be sold directly to brands or used to get potential clients on other jobs.
  • If you're starting out, it can help you build your portfolio and get you your first job
  • If you've been directing for some time, it can expand your portfolio, allow you to be more creative and keep you artistically engaged in the usual downtime of production

If you're a content creator, you probably know just how daunting it is to break into the world of commercial directing. But, lucky for you, new companies are being born every day, and these brands need directors to advertise their products. Also, even if an existing brand works with a director, that doesn't mean that showing your talents to them directly can't yield more filmmaking jobs. In this post, we'll discuss what a spec ad is, why you should make one, and the process of production that will lead to creative work for your career.

What is a spec ad

The phrase "spec ad" stems from 2 words: a speculative advertisement. In other words, it is a commercial that is not commissioned by a brand or agency and is done to advertise the skills of the filmmaker behind it. This means that you can remake an existing commercial and give your unique twist on the existing IP (intellectual property). It can be an original concept meant to showcase your voice or ability. Better yet, it can be a brand new IP that you intend to sell directly to the brand either for the standalone job or to add them to your list of clients.

The big difference is that spec work is paid for by the individual filmmaker with no promise of commission. Although this may seem like a gamble, there are many reasons to create these projects and use them to secure future work for yourself.

3 reasons to create spec work

1. Break in

If you're a beginning filmmaker, you need a portfolio to speak for you. Spec work is the answer to the question, "How do I get experience if I have no experience?" Taking the initiative to begin without having existing relationships will do just that. Brands want to see active creators who can make magic with little resources. If you can impress them without their backing, think of what you'll be capable of doing with it.

2. Creative freedom

The 1st reason may seem irrelevant to people brand-new to directing; anyone who has directed commercials knows the grind it can be. Brands tend to have their own prerogatives, creative vision, budget restrictions, agency middlemen and constraints that can be limiting for artists. Also, once you get the work itself, keeping the client can come before your individual expression.

What spec work provides the individual filmmaker is a chance to shine creatively and audition one's voice as distinct and forward-looking. Maybe the brand already has an aesthetic for a particular product that is set in stone. Creating spec commercials can give them a fresh take for that product, or at least distinguish you from their usual set of directors to shoot other projects for them. 

3. Expand Your Portfolio

Assuming you've already started making commercials, maybe the work has become stale. Sure, you'll take the paycheck-making spots for that insurance company, but you're no longer excited by it. Creating spec work will allow you to approach brands that are outside your wheelhouse and give them the confidence to bring you on to projects you've never done before.

How to Create a Spec Ad

  • The 1st thing you'll want to know is who you are as a creator and what brands you'd like to target. Write down a shortlist of brands and be very specific in your creative approach. Remember: you're selling yourself as a filmmaker, and you want your potential clients to see you as clearly as possible.
  • Next, get out your list of brands and make some decisions depending on where you are in your career. If you're truly starting out and want to sell your spec ad, perhaps you don't go straight for high-end commercial work for Nike or Apple. Maybe look for upstart or mid-level brands that are looking for advertising. If you have been at it for a while, aim higher if you like. Whether your spec ad is bought outright or not, you can always write off productions costs and keep the edit in your portfolio for the future.
  • Next, assemble a crew and try and complete production in 3 days or less. You don't want to skimp on the production value too much since this will be your introduction to potential clients. Be economical, but don't be cheap. Make sure you have at least a shooting script, DP, producer, gaffer, sound and actors you can depend on. The last thing you'll want is to have your work look amateurish or mediocre.
  • Once you have shot, edited and color graded your spec commercial, you have a viable product you can use in 1 of 2 ways. If you intend to sell the commercial, contact the company through an introduction email outlining several key information points. You should cover the price, the film's rights, who you are and why you made the spec, to begin with. It's okay if you don't get your normal rate, but don't lowball yourself either. You want to appear competent, professional and ready to hire. If you're going to showcase the spec to get work instead of selling it outright, feel free to send it to your representation to parade around or send the commercial yourself. Use it as your calling card to secure meetings, pitch sessions and future work.

Dos and don'ts of making a spec ad

Be original

The last thing a brand will want to see is something derivative of what they've already done. Instead, they'll want to know that you can think on your feet, have tons of ideas and are a brain to use in future projects.

If you're struggling to come up with ideas, try out a technique called bisociation. Writers, directors, engineers, business people and all sorts of professionals use this to brainstorm new concepts. The method is simple: take 2 very different concepts, objects or people and force them together to tease out a storyline or concept. For exampleת take a road and a feather - 2 things that seem to have no clear relationship at all. Now, imagine you have friends in animation who can draw a road made entirely of feathers with a car driving over it. You now have a spec commercial for Tesla to highlight the quiet ride you'll enjoy. This is just 1 example of how bisociation can allow you to come up with original concepts for brands.

Be concise

You are essentially making 30-second movies. Remember that. The moment a brand opens your email and sees the video is 3 minutes long, they will send the message to the trash. So you will have to be disciplined, create your shot list and have a tight script breakdown. Don't sacrifice artistic integrity (you want the piece to "work"), but make sure you have something that pops quickly and can fit into advertising slots.

Avoid sexual innuendo

Save it for your art films. The last thing a brand wants is to cross social taboos in today's age of cancellations and knee-jerk outrage. Even if you think it can be tastefully done, it's better to use material that can play to a wide audience. You don't want to offend parents if their 6-year-olds see it by accident. Brands don't want to consider you risqué or a liability. They want to see competence, creativity and the ability to pull off jobs under tight constraints. Don't give them any reason to doubt that.

Wrap up

Spec ads are great ways to broadcast your strengths as a creative professional, whether you're starting out or have been in the game for a while. If you're a beginner, this will accustom you to production and get you started in creating your portfolio to shop around to brands and agencies. If you're more established, this will allow you to be productive during downtime, afford you more creativity than in client work and expand your portfolio to other domains. Spec work comes at a cost but pays dividends when brands see your talent, drive and ability to get it done. Until next time, stay creative!

 

About Jonathan

Jonathan Mateer is a writer based in California. Currently attending UC Berkeley, he covers topics such as filmmaking, storytelling, politics and culture.
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