Illustration: Jamin Hoyle
For the past few months, we’ve been drowning in RFIs and RFPs. Which is obviously a good problem to have. Pitching business is the lifeblood of any agency. But it’s also a double-edged sword. Late nights, lost weekends, way too much familiarity with the pizza delivery guy. Even if you’re very disciplined about pursuing the right leads and saying “no” to the wrong ones, the RFP process can be painful and the win rate painfully low.
So what’s an agency to do? You can’t always rely on inbound leads and referrals, so RFIs and RFPs are a necessary evil. Yet each one seems to ask slightly different questions, and operate by a slightly different set of rules. So it’s like starting from scratch every time. They are often unnecessarily long, due too soon, or ask for information that seems to have little to do with our ability to solve marketing and business challenges. So from someone who has responded to more of these things than I can count, here are some thoughts on how to make them better, fairer, more humane, and ultimately more likely to lead to a successful partnership.
Make the RFI a two-way street.
Before asking a dozen or more agencies of all shapes and sizes to respond to a lengthy RFI, procurement and marketing folks should do some homework to narrow down what kind of agency they really need. How big? Which capabilities? Do you like the work? Do you want to see more? Reviewing agency sites and blogs, scouring LinkedIn bios and asking colleagues who they’d recommend should provide answers to many of those key questions. And you can always meet in person or pick up the phone and have a conversation to fill in any gaps. The key here is to set some criteria, be honest and consistent about which agencies meet the criteria, and come out with a few good options to move on to the next phase. Nothing’s worse for an agency than being told much later in the process that they were too small, had a conflict, or were in the wrong location to win the business.
Don’t obsess over maintaining a level playing field.
Good agencies try to win the pitch before the pitch by going the extra mile during the RFP process. But it’s disheartening when you ask to talk to key stakeholders, examine the raw data from the research, or share some initial thinking with the client, and your access is denied. The explanation is always the same: we want to maintain a level playing field. Really? Don’t you want to identify and hire the agency that will tilt the field to your advantage?
Give us the budget.
It’s amazing how many times the budget is not included in the RFP. Not only does that make it impossible to properly evaluate the opportunity, or actually craft a smart response, it’s a red flag that the assignment may not be officially budgeted for by the client. When a prospect says “Tell us what we should spend,” the agency might interpret that as “We don’t actually have any budget approved.” Worse yet is when the original RFI specifies a budget, only to be reduced sometime later in the process, after all the work is done.
Judge how we think, not the conclusions we reach.
The typical pitch timeline is so condensed, and the ability to collaborate with the client is so restricted, no agency can honestly do its best work. So rather than evaluating what answers an agency comes up with under these circumstances, focus on how we attack the problem. The kinds of smart questions we ask. The passion we show for your brand or business. The chemistry in the presentation room and what kind of working relationship it will lead to. These are the things that will matter much more to your success in the long run.
Do a trial project instead.
Marketing moves faster than ever these days. So rather than diverting attention from ongoing challenges (and existing agency clients,) or holding up new work for months, why not give an agency an actual assignment that needs attention right now? Not only will you get to see how they perform in the real world, you’ll see the results right away whether you continue working with them or not. Meanwhile, the agency gets fairly compensated for their efforts. One successful project can lead to many more, and you’ll be building your relationship on a foundation of real world accomplishment, rather than the unrealistic expectations that often come with a pitch. It’s a win-win. So maybe the best way to improve RFPs is to get rid of them altogether.