Are Job Ads Phishing For Free Innovation?

A recruiter recently announced an employment opportunity but it came with a test. Candidates would have to write a business plan they would implement in their first year with the company. The request was to “be innovative with your thinking!”

The recruiter insisted candidates needed to “wow!” this company. With the realization of the competitive nature for open executive positions, as one reads daily in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the candidates would have to take a chance or forget about any chance at all. The recruiter would not address who owned the intellectual property. The only answer was, “what’s that?” and “don’t worry!”

The ideas were, in all legal sense, the intellectual property of those writing them and unless the employer had them sign an agreement, they would have no right to use those ideas if the candidate wasn’t hired. Yet, it would be impossible to prove these ideas were not on the table with the company before receiving them from applicants. You can copyright an image, patent an invention or process and trademark a saying or phrase. Ideas are not tangible creations, so once put forth; you would be screwed from enjoying any reward for successful innovation.

“It’s a reputable company,” assured the recruiter, and people wrote plans, some making sure they included a copyright notice with their name at the end of each idea. A consulting fee for such work would be tens of thousands to a hundred thousand dollars or more.

As weeks went by, there was no word from the recruiter. When he finally returned emails to several of those who supplied innovation plans, he said the company decided to not fill the position.

The company didn’t need the brain behind the ideas they had received. They could take these ideas and hand them to a committee of existing employees. As for recourse, even if one could prove they had introduced the idea, the legal pursuit would be financially impossible – unless one were to invest in a Wal-Mart shotgun and plenty of ammo. Welcome to the new business acumen! It gives new meaning to “targeting” an employer.

More People Are Experiencing This Problem

Yesterday, an old art school friend called me in a very pissed off mood. Over the past couple of years during his job search, he has been in a pissed off mood but rightfully so. An experienced art director with top-level experience for a household name corporation, he had been laid off after many years of faithful and talented service. His job search was filled with odd requests and bad experiences in dealing with recruiters and employers. This phone call held a new and disappointing experience for him.

“So,” he started to tell me, “I’m called in to interview for a creative director position for (well-known publisher) and the person interviewing me has been with the company for seven weeks. She gives me a ‘creative director test’ and I had three days to create layouts, ads and a list of suggestions for how to improve this magazine.”

I knew what came next but continued mumbling, “uh-huh!” to show my sympathy. The story was no different from what I’ve heard and experienced myself many times over the past few years. “Tests” to get a job or just another interview.

The First “Red Flag” Of A Phishing Scam

instantShift - The First Red Flag Of A Phishing Scam

I’ve personally been asked to design a years worth of marketing material, a season of products and create a half dozen ideas for Super bowl ads, all on spec, all for free and all with no written agreement except for a passage in an email that states the creations belong to the company for which they were created. In all cases, I didn’t do the work but I’m sure there were dozens upon dozens of creatives who did. I have never heard of anyone actually “winning” the position, either.

One local company interviewed me for a creative director position and I was contacted by the marketing director with whom I had interviewed and told I was “one of six finalists” who would be granted “a second and final interview.” There was one little twist to the final step at the position for which no salary and compensation was ever discussed, nor would they discuss it – every candidate had to create a dozen ads, logos, billboards, signage, TV spots, print ads and a few more minor pieces over two weeks for the final interview. 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.

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 are 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? At first I thought that the lowest bidder on the job would just be handed all of the ideas that the company was given but I never heard of anyone being hired. For all I know, they just handed the ideas to a freelancer… someone who wouldn’t have to be paid benefits or a decent salary.

Crowdsourcing Jumps Off The Internet?

Which came first? Was it crowdsourcing sites like oDesk that gave some executive the brilliant idea that candidates should prove themselves for a position not only by creating samples for judgment and that evolved into not only providing samples for free but accepting a huge helping of humiliation along with such a heinous request?

instantShift - Crowdsourcing Jumps Off The Internet?

Crowdsourcing is a waste of time and effort. I admit I gave it a try. Out of over two-dozen bids for small jobs, I won two, which were not bad, lost three that were awarded to someone else, about twenty were never awarded and ten of the jobs came with the request for a “sample” to be done for consideration (which is against all crowdsourcing site rules).

By the same token, I have never gone any farther on job offers for full-time positions that ask for unpaid “tests” and never regretted my decision. Unfortunately, there were dozens of job seekers behind me that eagerly took the “tests.” I met a few of the candidates from the aforementioned job listed in the previous section of this article. They felt cheated and humiliated. They also wondered if they had given up a million dollar idea to this company for free. I suppose that has to be the real problem and one that would have eaten at me for the rest of my life, with visions of some executive, sitting with his feet on his desk, surrounded by beautiful women, lighting his cigar with a thousand dollar bill and laughing at how he cheated me and made a fortune off of it. Perhaps I watch too many cartoons and bad 1980s movies?

As with my old art school friend who called me, my advice is always that it’s nothing personal. In fact, the people at these companies admire the creative abilities of those they choose to do this spec work. Little comfort in being targeted like a millionaire by grifters but perhaps there’s some comfort in it? He wanted to send an email to the company and really tell them off. Luckily, before hitting send, his wife caught him and convinced him not to send it. That was a good call. Again, it’s nothing personal and people will remember such a message for the rest of their lives. Chances are, because what he went through was not personal, he might be called back for another interview down the road, hopefully under better terms and they won’t remember him. Certainly not as the man who sent a belittling email.

My final argument, in hopes of making people feel better about themselves after being sucked into such a situation, is that would one really want to work for a company that would do this to a candidate? Showing such a lack of respect for someone’s time and efforts, if they are truly looking to hire someone, is a good sign that each and every workday will be filled with a lack of respect for what you bring to the table. There’s a difference between a career move and taking a job. A career move allows growth and challenge. A job is a paycheck at the end of the week – a week of counting down the days until the weekend. Week after week, month after month and year after year of counting days gone by. Before you know it, if you stay in the same place, your life and dreams are over and unfulfilled.

Is This The New State Of Hiring?

Somehow I doubt accountants are asked to balance books for two weeks before being offered a position and I’ve never heard of a firefighter forced to ignite a house down the block and put out the flames before being considered for the local firehouse. Sure, it would be great if politicians had a 90 day prohibition period but that’s not about to happen. They are elected on campaign promises, which are hardly a résumé of accomplishments. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

A serious client respects your time and efforts and will consider your experience. If they truly want a test, it will have some rate of pay in exchange for the rights to the ideas rendered. There are firms that go through recruiters for what is called a “temporary to permanent” (temp to perm) hire. I actually got my favorite job that way. Not only is a great way to prove yourself but also you meet other people at the firm and if you are not hired on a permanent basis, the connections you make will remember your abilities and as they move around the industry, you will find them to be valuable connections in your network.

“Network” is an important thing and companies and people who engage in the foul practice of speculative work don’t realize that what they do and how they act, as with anyone, follow them and can become a viral bad reputation. Reputation is everything and isn’t just confined to creatives. The creative who feels slighted today may be the marketing director tomorrow or just be in a position to make decisions that will affect a company that has treated them unprofessionally at one point.

What Goes Around, Comes Around!

instantShift - What Goes Around, Comes Around!

I found myself in the position to make or break a deal with a company I knew to be less than professional. To my credit, I chose to rely on an unemotional decision based on what doing business with the firm would mean for my firm’s products. It was others who had heard bad things via the professional grapevine who killed the deal. I’m sure I would have been able to reign in that company and lay down the law of what was expected from them… and it would have been beautiful revenge to see them squirm (okay, so I’m not the Dali Lama) but it would also have been a gamble to see if they could keep to the professional standards needed to succeed.

Jackie Gleason was quoted as saying, “be kind to those you meet on the way up, because you’ll meet them on the way down.”

Whether you believe in destiny, karma or just that it’s a small world and a smaller industry, chances are you will meet someone who did you wrong or vice versa. What is really worth your reputation? For me, there aren’t enough creative ideas to steal to sell my reputation but others apparently don’t agree… or just haven’t learned their lesson… yet! Eventually our past catches up with us.

The company that treated my art school friend with such callousness has an extremely high turnover rate among employees. That’s no surprise for a place that feels job candidates are less than human. Employees, no doubt, are treated with the same consideration. This company faces two avenues of problems with its reputation. Employees will leave with horror stories and negative feelings and those who attempted to gain employment will leave with negative feelings but no sense of fear of bad recommendations to future job opportunities.

Naturally, the employees who helped carry out the evil plans of those companies will also have to live with the reputation. When interviewing for their next position, they may very well find themselves staring into the eyes of someone they taunted into doing spec work with no real hope of winning.

Like ripples in a pond, from a tiny pebble, reputation continues to spread out. Be careful what pebbles you throw into the pond.

The Professional Way

As with my favorite job, it would seem just as simple and certainly more honest to narrow a job search down to three candidates and let each one spend two-weeks on site, proving themselves. It will tell you how they handle pressure, adapt, learn and get along with the team. Candidates are paid; provide work and everyone feels a bit better even if the candidate isn’t right for the position in the end. Most companies have a 30-90 day probationary period for new hires. So, what would two or three weeks of a test period really do to the corporate structure or the search effort until the right person is found?

Having outlined the ramifications of a bad reputation for those involved in idea phishing, it certainly behooves those inside the company to convince those around them that it’s a dangerous practice. Unfortunately, that will take some doing as too many people have no morals or lack vision into what the future may hold for their actions.

If you doubt a client or company’s motive, doing some research can yield 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 company history with freelancers and candidates? Are you a member of an organization where others might know about this employer? Post to the group’s discussion board and ask.

Unfortunately, with the state of business and an abundance of job seekers around, employers can demand tests and plenty will heed the call. They might not be the most professional of the lot but, truthfully, that’s why many employers ask for tests… sometimes they just can’t afford the reliable professionals but want the ideas they can generate. In the long run, you get what you pay for and you pay for your actions. Both can be expensive in many ways.

Image Credits

Like the article? Share it.

LinkedIn Pinterest


  1. Thanks for another insightful and informative article, Speider! It’s a shame that those with the $ think it’s ok to take advantage of creatives (and others) by demanding work on spec. It eventually does come to bite them in the proverbial …

  2. This happened to me twice! Yes, yes I know shame on me. Of course I really wanted to work and I took a leap of faith and created the designs and NEVER heard back from the potential employers. Trust your instincts.

    • “Trust your instincts.” That’s so true, CYourLight. I call them vibes, but it’s pretty amazing how accurate they are and how you kick yourself when you don’t listen to them! Great article, Speider!

  3. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of How your Are Job Ads Phishing For Free Innovation on .

  4. Sadly, this is happening all over the place in an economy state that we are in. I personally experienced these “tests” back when I was desperate for jobs. I would do anything for free. But once I start to understand my value, it makes it a whole lot easier to say no; and at the same time, I’ve learned to be professional about it without cussing them out.

    On a whole different magnitude, I once worked in an ad agency and the whole company was trying to win this Caesar Palace, Las Vegas account. What Caesar Palace did was provide an entire list of things that we need to put together for them within two weeks. Sample ads, website layouts, logos, color studies, business proposals, etc. And they actually asked six other agencies to do the same. Knowing this is such a big account, every agency put in everything they got; some even went out of their way to hire a team just to win this particular pitch. As we were informed that we were one of the last two finalists, Caesar Palace then gave us another extensive requirement for another two weeks, all to make sure we don’t lose out after all.

    They ended up going with another agency, and they get to keep every idea and proposal from all the angencies during the pitch. Talk about bullying, this is an art form.

Leave a Comment Yourself

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *