The dreaded RFP.
If you’re in the advertising and public relations world, RFPs are like money in politics. Firms and clients both dislike them. Yet neither side seems willing or able to stop them from happening.
I frequently hear mutual frustrations with this antiquated search model. Clients feel ill-equipped to develop and manage an RFP process – and are often unhappy with the results. Agencies feel RFPs don’t provide the right information and require too much guess work “on spec.”
So, to both sides, here’s my message: It’s time to kill the RFP.
If you work at any size communications agency, you’ve responded to an RFP, or “request for proposals.” They are knee-jerk, copy-paste behavior at its worst. Companies and organizations use them because they aren’t sure how else to find the right partner. Services firms grit their teeth and respond because they hope it might lead to a big new client.
It’s a vortex of well-intentioned but highly misguided habits. Agencies, you keep responding to them. Clients, you keep putting them out. Both sides know the RFP approach is flawed. Yet neither does much to fix this outdated method of procurement.
So why - despite our better judgment - does the RFP persist?
Having spent years managing agency RFP responses for Fortune 500s, non-profits, government agencies, and everything in between, I’ve noticed a pattern of shared behaviors preventing us from designing better default methods:
Reason #1: Clients don’t know what else to do – or what they actually need. An RFP is a crutch. Many organizations simply don’t know how else to find what they are looking for. An RFP is used to compile a broad scope of work (usually developed by committee) that rarely defines a clear strategic purpose behind it. This inevitably dilutes the rationale for hiring an agency. The RFP becomes a list of conflicting tasks, services, and tactical deliverables.
Reason #2: Agencies are addicted to them. Communications agency culture tends to foment a lot of risk-taking and innovative, bet-the-farm envelope pushing. This can transfer itself into the agency’s business development philosophy. Business development teams love “the thrill of the hunt.” Most great Creatives are, by nature, drawn to challenges with chaos and disruption built into them. (That’s what makes them great Creatives.) All of this perfectly defines the feeling of getting and responding to an RFP – and, if you’re lucky, landing a big contract.
Reason #3: That agency-client “partnership” often isn’t one. Very few agency-client partnerships are actual partnerships. Agencies tend function within a Culture of Yes even when they know the work could be better – and more effective. Many clients rarely hear "no" and this dynamic begins with the RFP process. Too many agencies don’t question the client or push back on things that don’t make sense for fear of not winning the business. Nobody wants to rock the boat if it means losing potential revenue.
I could go on. Simply put, both sides are complicit in this cycle.
There are many other reasons why this formula has grown tired and ineffective. But it’s more important to focus on why RFPs are actually not a very good way to build your business (if you’re an agency) or to find a creative partner (if you’re the client).
Here are three major reasons why it’s time to kill the RFP:
It says nothing about what’s really going on. RFPs rarely disclose the true nature of an organization’s communications needs. They often focus on services, tasks, or the basic assignments required of an agency. They may ask for “new and innovative” ideas but leave out critical analysis of why it’s needed or the realistic challenges if implementing them – be that the personalities involved, budget limitations or internal bureaucracies. Agencies often don’t get more than a brief window to ask questions via e-mail (some don’t bother asking). Clients think cutting off access to critical information during an RFP process creates fairness. The two sides end up guessing. Assumptions are made. It’s the procurement equivalent of shooting at a target blindfolded and hoping you hit something.
It’s asking for free work you’ll never use. Developing a proposal is itself time consuming. Agencies spend non-billable time (meaning late nights and weekends) putting together responses – and usually on insanely tight timelines. Many RFPs ask firms to develop work product “on spec,” requiring creative teams to showcase everything from original strategy to designs. There are numerous problems with this. The agency, even if they win, ends up in the hole financially before (or if) a contract is ever signed. Clients usually toss out the spec work once the relationship is formalized. And why not? No thoughtful collaboration, research, or planning went into its development.
It’s speed dating. Imagine thinking you can get to a marriage proposal in two weeks by putting up an online profile listing the things your future mate must do for you. You’re going to go on a lot of bad dates. Your options will feel limiting. And your resulting marriage will likely be a disappointment. I’ve talked with countless clients and agency leaders over the years who recall their frustrations over how a post-RFP partnership started out promising but quickly fizzled. Culture fit was wrong. The agency or client “didn’t get it.” The client wanted more than they could afford. Nobody was on the same page. The work suffered.
The truth is proposals rarely matter. Honestly, how many times do any of us ever go back to reference the original proposal after the client-agency relationship begins? Never. Far more important is a relationship built on open, transparent dialogue and the hard-earned establishment of trust.
This is the most important message to take away from this post: A written proposal – even a winning one – is usually relegated to the trash bin after decisions get made. And this is because the most important moment in the agency hiring process is when everyone sits down and a collaborative conversation begins. Both sides can ask questions. Personalities can mesh – or not. Everyone can learn more from and about each other to identify the best way forward.
Here’s my advice to both sides:
If you’re an organization considering putting out an RFP: Instead of spending time developing an RFP, make it a priority to start building personal relationships with different firms and getting to know their strengths, skillsets, and people. Call on them when you think you have a need that matches who they are and what they do. But don’t make them jump through hoops to work with you. Start with a discussion about where you are and where you’re struggling. Doing this is more than a two-week investment. It’s constant.
If you’re an agency struggling with responding to RFPs: Decide what your RFP philosophy is – and stick by it. If you decide you don’t respond to RFPs, don’t slip into the “But-We-Should-Really-Respond-To-This-One” hedge. Instead of responding to blind requests, analyze your actual win/loss ratio. Chances are you’re doing better at (and happier with) non-RFP client acquisitions. Decide what the right format is for developing and winning business. Don’t be afraid to tell a prospective client you won’t respond to their RFP, but would gladly come in for a meeting to determine how best to serve them.