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RIP to the RFP

Christina Egts

When was the last time you opened up a newspaper (you know, those things they have at Starbucks on the rack by the register), went to the classifieds section, found the personal ads and responded to one? Probably never, right? And when did you last write a “Looking for a date that likes long walks on the beach” ad? Again, probably never. The whole idea seems archaic. And I’d venture to guess that whoever responds to such an ad might be a tad bit desperate.

So why are we doing this in business? 

In the marketing world, the equivalent of a personal ad is the RFP, or request for proposal. They’re ubiquitous. You literally can’t avoid them. If you research the history of the RFP, you’ll find that some trace its beginnings to the Mad Men era of the 1960s ad agencies, and some take it back as far as the 1880s. So they’ve definitely been around. But do they make sense, especially in today’s business world? Let’s look at three reasons why people use RFPs to vet agencies, and where they fall a little short of their goals.

Encouraging Fresh Faces

Clients don’t know where to turn, so they unleash their RFP to a handful of agencies looking for fair open market competition. They aren’t sure exactly what they are looking for, but they believe they’ll know it when they see it. The problem is, when push comes to shove and a partner needs to be chosen, sometimes they fall back on what’s easy—going with who is the cheapest, who they’ve worked with in the past or who has some inside connection to the company.

Comparing Apples to Apples

The RFP is generally formatted very rigidly and asks for specific information they are interested in, or think they should be interested in. Things like, “what’s the average tenure of your full-time staff?” It’s fine to ask questions like that, but many times, the questions represent “must haves” in the potential client’s eyes. They want it all, not realizing that’s impossible. Plus, the answers are just raw data—the context is missing. For instance, there may be a reason why one agency has less full-time staff than another, or there’s a great story about how working in one industry for so long influenced their work in another industry. Numbers don’t provide the backstory. And that leads us into the biggest RFP shortfall.

Wanting Big Ideas

Clients are shopping for partnerships and big ideas, but RFPs promote safe rule following, not visionary business strategy. There are three problems with that.

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The RFP is structured in such a way that so much energy is spent ensuring everything is checked off the list and covered down to the smallest detail that there’s very little time left for concepts and recommendations—or even really thinking about the client’s business problem.
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While it’s rare these days that a business will ask for spec creative in an RFP, they want the strategy and everything with it. It’s like asking a caterer to come up with a menu for your wedding and give you the recipes for all the dishes…and then you’ll decide later if you’re going to go with them. It’s not reasonable or respectful of the agencies’ work.
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Many times, clients will have an idea what the “big idea” should be, just not how to get there. However, agencies often find that the work that’s being outlined won’t really accomplish the goals of the businesses, or that there’s a better way of approaching the problem from a different angle. But there’s no real opportunity to offer that up in the RFP format.


The Starbucks Solution 

So if an RFP isn’t the way to go, what is? Here’s an idea—when a business realizes they need some help, they go online, pick out a few agencies they’d be interested in, give them a call and ask if they want to have a chat. Then, they grab a coffee and talk. Actually meeting in a more informal setting allows each side to get a feel for the other—their style, their values, their personality. And vibe is important. It’s also easier to talk about ideas and recommendations with an organic back-and-forth. After all, if the agency is supposed to be the expert, then they should be able to demonstrate that without being fed through a list of questions. If the client likes what they hear, the conversation continues another time. 

As I implied, the partnership between a client and an agency is a relationship. And like any relationship, its foundations should be genuine. Rather than some random person who responds to your “romantic walks on a beach” ad, wouldn’t you prefer actually getting to know someone? You can’t get that in a classifieds ad. And you won’t get that in an RFP. 

In business, there are so many things you can’t influence. But how you go about finding a partner can be changed. So be a disruptor. And instead of pressing send on that RFP email, pick up the phone and give us a call. No need to send me your checklist. Just let me know beforehand how you like your coffee. I’ll have it waiting for you.