It's going to take a handful of divinely inspired exhibit houses able to find salvation in simply saying no.
If you read my editorials religiously, you already know that I believe speculative design is a sinful waste of creative capital. Asking a company to create an exhibit for you without compensation is like asking an artist to paint your portrait before determining whether or not you'll actually pay him or her. It's nonsensical, devalues the creative process, increases the likelihood of intellectual-property theft, and results in exorbitant margins so that exhibit houses can recoup the investment of time and money that's squandered whenever a client chooses one of the many other firms invited to bid on the job. I'm fairly certain that every time an exhibitor positions spec design as a prerequisite for potential partnership, an angel loses its wings.
But this abomination of a business practice is not all exhibit managers' fault. If spec design is not the world's oldest profession, it's got to be a close second. The industry has operated in this manner for so long - with exhibiting companies issuing requests for proposal and demanding to see renderings (or, in the olden days, 3-D models) before deciding with whom they will do business - that spec design has become the status quo. In fact, many exhibit managers say they wouldn't even consider firms that refused to include design proposals in their RFP responses.
Exhibit designers who whip up a rendering for anyone who shows the least bit of interest are the Babylonians of the face-to-face marketing industry. They reinforce the gross misperception that ideas fall from the sky like manna from heaven. And why would budget-strapped exhibit managers want to pay for a design when they can easily get the milk for free?
Given my predisposition against unpaid creative work, I applaud the exhibit houses that no longer agree to do it - or are, at least, becoming less inclined to pony up a concept without vetting clients. Granted, I believe that exhibiting companies are the ones who should be doing the vetting and narrowing their list of prospective partners down to a precious few before inviting anyone to bid on a job. But just as Noah wouldn't have built the ark if not for word of a global flood, I don't imagine exhibit managers will forego the status quo until designers stop offering up their talents gratis.
Thankfully, it appears the tides may be beginning to shift. According to EXHIBITOR's 2017 RFI/RFP Survey, a near majority (45 percent) of custom houses say they've become more selective in determining which clients to pursue, responding to an average of just 6.5 out of every 10 RFPs they receive. But I fear that's still nowhere near the tipping point that will spell Armageddon for unpaid design. It's going to take a handful of divinely inspired exhibit houses able to find salvation in simply saying no.
Recently, I came across a story that offers a proverbial ray of hope. After receiving an RFP from a major international brand, this particular exhibit house replied not with a rendering, but rather a short video that conveyed Henry Matisse's belief that "Creativity takes courage." Or in other words, if clients want them to create, they need to be courageous enough to actually pay them. The client's response: "You are either the ballsiest agency in the world or the dumbest."
A month after said client opted to instead evaluate the renderings submitted by other bidders, it returned to the table and ultimately hired the agency to create what ended up being an award-winning exhibit.
It's going to take a lot more brave and ballsy exhibit houses before we ascend above the status quo, and we are going to need an equal number of courageous exhibit managers who see the value in compensating honest-to-God creativity. But perhaps, if the industry amasses enough individuals who are willing to fight the good fight, they will collectively deliver us from speculative-design evil.