Say No To Spec Work on your Demo Reel

December 14, 2009 - By 

I wanted to talk a bit about spec work. It has come up a few times on the Demo Reel Critiques lately and I thought I would share my opinion on it. What is spec work? Spec work is doing work for another company or brand either as a creative exercise or to try to win their attention or money.

The short answer?
Don’t do spec work. And if you do, DONT put it on your demo reel.

Spec work is often done with popular brands, who already have a strong brand image. Apple, Nike, BMW, Gatorade, MTV. Doing something similar to them has no creative merit and doing something off brand looks weird and unprofessional.

Explain Yourself
Keep in mind that there are no “cover letters” with demo reels. Explaining each piece in your reel is not an option. Having work on your reel with other’s brands in it say to the viewer, “I did this piece for this client” Explaining yourself after the fact seems shady and can lead to “what about everything else in the reel?” thoughts.

What to do Instead

  • Channel your time and creative energy into doing your OWN animation.
  • Try entering a Five Second Project where you have more control over the animation.
  • Make up your own brand If you want to work with logos and do something more commercial looking.
  • Make a spot your a friend’s small business or website. (I did one for a local coffee shop that ended up getting me some local attention)
  • Do something abstract. Do something crazy! Screw the popular look and make something totally personal and new. Go nuts!

The Bottom Line
In this business, you will probably be making commercials and animations for other people your entire career. If you do something on your own time, don’t rehash what has been done or do free work… Instead, make something that is truly your own.

  • This is an interesting point you are making. I think that a lot of people that are in school learning animation and design sometimes rely heavily on commercials they see on motionographer or any other forum of that nature and end up copying a style or even an idea. When I started off at school, I was like that, too. All I wanted to do was commercials, because I was inspired by a lot of great pieces I have seen online or on TV. Luckily, I figured out early that the pieces that have a copied style are not nearly as valuable as an idea or style of your own. Plus, they end up being more fun and unique and you will eventually surprise the audience.

  • You should try an audio podcast instead of recording a whole video.

    What about doing stuff for made up brands? Like pear instead of apple.

  • I totally get where you are coming from.. It’s hard with a student reel when a lot of the class work is taking popular brands and working within their style for a final project. Also as a student we are encouraged to enter competitions brands have that involve doing spots to potentially land your work on the air. For a professional motion reel, though, I totally agree.

  • I have an AT&T logo in my reel because I did work for a conference. I thought long and hard about putting it in there. Eventually I threw it in because of the brand, but I should have left it out because it’s simple and crappy. It’s not making the cut for the 2009 reel, that’s for sure.

  • Nick,
    That makes sense. Question…
    Do you think it’s different when professionals post pitch work/concepts that will never see the light of day but they were paid to create them by their employer? What do you think of those? I see pros posting boards and even animations that were never used but are beautiful works. It’s a slightly different situation than what you are referring to. You think?

    • This applies more to students than to studios. Pitch work is slightly different than spec work. Showing failed pitches can work in some instances. The less popular the brand, the more acceptable it is.

    • I have to ask what qualifications the OP of this article has. “Don’t put spec work in your reel because its unprofessional” is the biggest pile of bunk I’ve ever heard. Who is this Nick Campbell guy?

      I work with major brands on a regular basis (yes, at the “big 5” ad agencies) and we routinely recruit fresh talent from smoking spec reels. And I’ve never heard of a Nick Campbell.

      Methinks this is just bad advice, and it’s definitely advice being pulled out of the ass. Anyone with any experience in this industry at all wouldn’t say anything like this, except to reduce his competition.

      He should at least learn what he’s talking about because now people are going to go around thinking that this is true.

      Nick, if you want to sound important, get yourself a CV and experience working with a large agency. Until then, do yourself a favour and stop talking like an expert. I have no problems with opinions, but you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about here.

      • Not trying to sound important. Just trying to help.

        I don’t have any direct knowledge of “Big 5” ad agencies, but places I worked (Digital Kitchen) scoffed at fake commercials in demo reels. Besides, it always looked cheesy to me.

  • the “no spec” fight has been going on for a long time now. bottom line is if the potential employer can’t guarantee you money up front to do the job based on your current portfolio and experience then you shouldn’t do any work; move on. unless you have a long standing relationship with the client and trust them enough to pay an invoice upon receipt i’d highly recommend to stay away from these spec jobs. stay away from craigslist and odesk, too, since a majority of the postings are spec. it’s not worth the trouble to work yourself for naught.

    visit this site for more info:

    • I think you might’ve missed the point of this segment Jason. It’s about whether to include spec work on your reel, not whether you should ever accept or take on spec work. 🙂

    • perhaps…however the first line under the header “The Short Answer” is DON’T DO SPEC WORK.

      i agree with that statement. it’s a huge waste of time if you think you’re ever going to get anything out of it. i used to work for a national company and we did a “contest” where we opened it to everyone who wanted to ‘make a commercial for our company’. we didn’t get very many submissions but there were enough to respark our own creative juices. basically we stole ideas from others who would never see any return on their hard work. do i feel bad by being involved…yes. will i ever take part in a contest or any other form of spec work (from either side)…hell no.

  • Great insight Nick, I totally agree. I never saw the point in doing Spec work.

  • This is kind of depressing to hear considering that ALL the work I’ve done so far for my reel has been spec work. How else are you supposed to get attention these days ? What if you make them extremely convincing?

    • I think you should get attention from the quality of your work, not the list of clients you’re supposed to have work for. You know, the creativity and the polished animation rather than just showing off… It’s a little bit like a gorgeous blonde girl with fake boobs. It looks “nice” [if you are into those sort of things] but in the end, it’s fake.

  • What about style boards and layouts? What if you can show all your work and thoughts centered around a specific logo as an example for clients to see?

  • Awesome posting Nick I absolutely agree, and just to add this isn’t just for broadcaster/Motion Graphics work, VFX, and Character animation too, don’t use animated voice clips, don’t design a character based on an Pixar or Dreamworks character don’t reanimate an animated scene.

    one of the key reasons as Nick touched on is that you will always be compared to the original and there is very little chance you will be able to. no matter what though when hiring people are going to look for originality, and replicating something else isn’t very original.

    • Not using voice clips from animation was new to me, but I’ve heard allot of NO,NO on modeling established characters. But I totally agree with everything. Be creative, make your own stuff.

      Kai Pedersen? You of norwegian heritage or something? 🙂

  • I totally agree about not including spec work on a reel. What about contest entries, like the recent Unplugged challenge?

  • I had an interview with Psyop and I was told that sometimes you can help your chances at getting a job at a studio if you can reinterpret their work while adding something new and original. Now, I’m not saying this is something to put on your reel. I guess the idea behind this is to show your skill and to show how much you like their work.

  • I myself am a student who gets quite excited about create essentially mock commercials. I don’t see a problem with it if you are confident in your skills and can really add something to a companies brand.

    Personally I get really excited by the idea of taking my style or abstract ideas and merely giving it a commercial edge at the end. It often gets me out of a creative rut.

  • Right on Nick. I think If you’re creative enough to do a spec ad or mock commercial, you’re creative enough to come up with your own brand name and “fake” company/logo for it.

    If you insist on doing an apple ad, at least do an “orange” or “pineapple” ad because 9/10 it’s not going to look like Apple and at least others will know you didn’t actually *do* an “Apple” branded ad.

    The fringe benefit of doing your own “brands” is you also start thinking about what *your* brand actually is, how it works, what the color palette is, etc. and move away from what others have done. Branding yourself can be quite powerful. A commercial’s “look” is its brand and if you try to rebrand somebody else, it usually goes wrong.

  • I agree with Nick about putting spec work on your reel. Don’t even bother. Also don’t copy tutorials from this site, Video Copilot, Motionworks, etc. and put them on your reels. Think about it. A studio is looking for a talented designer not a mimic. Create your own animated sequences and let your imagination run wild. I find the toughest part about putting together a reel is trying to transition between segments that might have quite different styles (like a clip with 3D followed by a more traditional 2D clip). Remember to lead off with your best clip since the average reel is only watched for 30 secs. before it’s either trashed or passed onto the next level.

  • great vid nick,

    really useful, im currently working on my first demo reel, so this really helps filter content. thanks nick

  • Nice post Nick. Is it ok if our reels have a couple of work from contents? or should we just cut out the logo parts?

    I wonder how many tutorials we’ll get this week. Keep up the good work Nick.

  • Hmmm. Interesting. Making me think about this. It flies contrary to what I was told as a student/novice, and have been repeating for my entire career. Doing portfolio work that was for a real pseudo project adds context to our work. Not all of us are lucky enough to work on big brand names. And sadly most agencies seem to gravitate to big brand work in portfolios.

    i think its a thin line and one must tread carefully, but saying never is a pretty heavy blanket statement. Getting solid work from a portfolio of only experimental or faux-brand work I think would be tough to many agencies.

    i guess it depends on where one is interviewing at (agency, studio) and at what point in ones career one is at (beginner, experienced, expert). These are points I’m keeping in mind as I build my new reel though

  • hey Nick!! great advice. Actually that’s exactly what I do when I just want to do something.. for learning, practicing, etc.. For example, Im very new at motion graphics, and don’t have a lot of work doing this, so I do animations for friend’s business or also for myself…but I never liked to do fake commercials for big brands.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences, Nick!

  • I know I have ran into problems with producers about being able to put the work I did for them on my reel. They state that their company made it, where as I say no, I made it for your company. Any comments on that? Is there some kind of professional etiquette when it comes to putting work on your demo reel that you made for someone else?

    • Unless you signed some really specific contract. Then, that work is yours and you should be able to use it to promote yourself. You should NOT however use that work to promote another company, including your own if you start one.

      • NOT TRUE.

        Be very careful about ‘showing’ work, a lot of freelance material IS copyright the company you did it for, and is NOT yours. See ‘work for hire’ 1976 copyright law.

        Always ask, it shows your professional, it develops a relationship, it develops trust.

  • Completely agree. When I was starting in that industry, I was looking at a few showreels that had spec work on it. And I didn’ t know back then, so I was asking those guys “wow that’s cool you worked for those guys, they’re really cool, you’re really great to just!” and then they were telling me it was just something they did for themselves. And in the end, I was feeling it was a bit pretentious to make believe other people that they were big enough to take on those high end jobs.

    On the other end, it can pay off to do those things. Remeber that guy who did that fake commercial for the iPod Touch with CSS as a soundtrack, “Music is my Hot Hot sex”? It was a big YouTube video:
    Well, an agency that was working with Apple really liked it and they paid the guy to make it broadcast friendly. And it was a cool commercial, really well done, really clever.
    so I guess people are also trying to get that viral touch that will get them noticed to get a realy job behind. And that’s fine, this how the world of internet works nowadays.

    But I guess that if you can’t really make it into a realy commercial and you don’t get noticed with your spec work, then don’t put it in your showreel.

    • That Apple/CSS commercial was a one in a million shot…. The guy who made it, iirc, was just a student who just liked Apple products. He wasn’t even in the industry, let alone fishing for a job. And most importantly, he wasn’t hungry. If you come off hungry, you won’t get fed—I think that’s a subtle thing people miss about spec work.

      It’s one thing to make a cool youtube vid and see what people’s reaction is, it’s another to put it in your reel. The really tacky designers do both and stick in “editor for hire! motion designer! If you like this, hire me!” at the end of their viral vid which pretty much destroys any effect the viral had to begin with and becomes a form of blatant advertising instead.

  • I agree with you Nick. I’ve found studios are more interested in my personal work than those made by ‘proper’ brands as my own style can shine through more.

  • some time ago you reviewed a showreel of a guy who made the commercials for halo 3 and god of war.
    the halo 3 commercial made in No.3 pos of the Commercial of the Decade 🙂

    • see this i guess is nicks point on the whole thing, because people could get confused really easily, see you think the kid actually made the commercials (rightfully so) because he showed them in the reel, BUT if you watch again you will see that at least to me this is my opinion , it looks as though he created the interface around the borders of the screen and used it in combo. for a project

    • not exactly.
      if you go to his resume you see he’s lead creative of the studio who made the ad.
      soo yeah – he made it all 🙂
      with a help of tons of guys 🙂

  • I see your point, but what is a student to do when all of his or her class projects are based around big brands and big logos?

    • Well, copying a commercial can be a great way to learn. Just don’t put it on your reel. Maybe at the end of the project, you can replace the well known logo with one that you made and re-render? You could also plead the case to your teacher.

    • yeah you could plead your case but honestly a professor will not just change there whole curriculum because of that, ive watched lots of work from graduated students at my college (SCAD) and they all had some kind of spec work in there reels, i though to myself thats cool it felt like they were doing more professional works, and learning real world, matter of fact one of them is now working at Digital Kitchen in N.Y. right now, so maybe it doesnt hurt as much….how do u make a reel just graduating without your work from your classes?? I know u said cut the logo but not every project just reveals the logo at the end, maybe something in other parts of the project show the company. Does doing a project that reveals a BIG companies logo at the end say that your a bad designer? shouldnt it be about what techniques or style. talent and skill the designer has rather then if he did something for this company or not…one last thing, to save the confusion on whether or not they really did this for the company, isnt safe to assume if they are just graduating from school that they most likely did not

    • I think we are saying the same thing in a way. To employers, the reel is ONLY about technique and creativity. It’s about solving a problem with visuals. Logos usually don’t mean anything unless your a HUGE studio that needs to show off it’s client list.

      In short, A logo won’t make a great piece bad. But, they will get in the way when it comes to being more creative and explaining the work on your reel. It’s best to just leave them off.

  • I just entered a film in the Nikon Film Festival that has a commercial feel. Do you think that is a good reel piece?

    This is my mini opus.

  • Thank you for bringing this up. It’s important not only for novices but for professionals as well to judge work based on its quality and not based on what logos appear on it or what company name appears on a resume.
    We need to educate employers as well since many would rather hire someone with little creativity and a long resume than someone with a lot of creativity and short resume.

  • I totally disagree. Spec work is fine to show in a reel. Either publish a shot breakdown and note that it’s spec work or tell the interviewer in the interview that it’s spec.

    When I look at a reel to hire someone, all I care about is the quality of the work and that they did the work represented.

  • Well in my experience, living in San Francisco and in Los Angeles for some time, the reel/portfolio is, unfortunately, treated as an afterthought by employers at big production companies and TV stations. They won’t look at your work unless you give them a book to read as your cover.
    Someone with a very poorly produced nationally seen Arby’s or NBC commercial costing an obscene amount of money on their resume is more likely to get the position than someone with little experience, fresh out of college with a stunning reel produced with inexpensive consumer grade equipment.

    Where can you get a creative job without a cover letter and resume?
    I need a new job ;D
    btw you look and sound a bit like Andrew Kramer. must be the mic….and camera combo~*

    • if you’re looking for a creative job (or any job really) i’d recommend distancing yourself from the competition and lowering your standards for cost of living. it’s just a suggestion; don’t hold me responsible for anything!

  • thanks for the tip jason, don’t worry I won’t. haha:D

    Step 1: move in with parents
    Step 2: become an artist :>

  • Ok, here is my question: as a designer, I have done some comercial work and I’m about to turn in a piece to a client who is a multi-national corporation. How do I include this in my reel and it NOT look like a spec piece? Its my only big client to date, all the rest have been for places like “my friends coffee shop”. or, how do I let people know it was a legit piece without waving a big “look at me, im for real” flag?

  • With sites like Vimeo, I find you can have it both ways. Don’t put your recreations on your reel, but leave them on Vimeo next to your reel with an explanation about why you did them. You can direct a potential employer/client to your reel. And without even mentioning the other stuff, they will still have the opportunity to view your other work because it is in the list right next to your featured link.

  • I’m glad you posted this- I had one spec piece in my reel I was about to send out. It’s nice to hear some advice on this. It is hard not to do specs- but I agree with you that you don’t have to use brands. I will keep that in mind next time I make something cool, and want to put an MTV logo on it. 🙂


  • Hey Nick, Fantastic eye opener, You said not to use your work from another company if your starting your own? So I am starting my own company, but I would then not have any work to show off could you elaborate on how you would approach this obstacle.

    • Gotta start making new work for yourself. I would make a small piece of animation every weekend. Be sure to do a five second project too. Build up your reel bit by bit with all brand new awesome stuff. Then show it to the world and rock your new biz! Good luck!

  • 99 Designs should be called 99% Crap. The prices are low and attractive, but if you’re on a budget (e.g. $300 for a logo) there are much better alternatives than doing spec work with inexperienced “designers”.

    I posted a project on once to get my logo designed. It’s all college student designers, so the cost is low like 99Designs/CrowdSpring but I was able to work with one girl over a week with several iterations (she was quite patient with me).

    I’m all for supporting students starting their careers, and since they are looking to build their portfolios, they’ll bend over backwards for your design, and aren’t looking for a quick buck.

  • DO you really believe that? A commercial producer told me to make specs if I want to get hired. Known brands. He specifically told me that.

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