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Why "RFP" Now Means "Request for Perjury"

  |  April 29, 2003   |  Comments

There are no shortage of complaints about the online RFP process, and they come from both sides of the table.

So, you thought "RFP" stood for "request for proposal"? Sorry, folks, that's no typo in the title. Sad to say, but the RFP process for online media is starting to get out of hand. Unfortunately, buyers and sellers are playing a game these days with an important business tool that can really make our lives a little easier -- and more profitable.

If you're an agency person, you might be thinking, "Oh boy, I'm glad he's going to vent on the rep community! I'm tired of all the BS I get back in proposals." Yup, you'll see some venting shortly. But get ready to take a good look in the mirror. (If anything, I'm a fair and balanced "venter.")

If you're an online media rep, don't fret. I know we agency people create a lot of frustration. But don't jump up and down just yet. (Venting usually goes both ways...)

Instead of merely blowing off steam, we need to do something about the problem. Let's start by taking a look at how we're misusing RFPs, examining the problem from both perspectives. Then let's see what we need to do to get things back on track.

What's Wrong With the Good Old RFP?

It's not so much the tool itself that creates confusion and friction, but how everyone uses and responds to RFPs.

Let's start with the buyer side by listing a few common complaints:

  • "Why don't publishers respond to my requests in a timely manner?"

  • "Ten seconds after emailing the RFP, I get a call with questions for the same information that's noted in it. Didn't he read it?"

  • "I asked for a proposal with a limit of $20,000, yet I get a package for $50,000. What's up with that?"

  • "I clearly asked for specific targeting criteria, yet 80 percent of what they're offering doesn't meet the stated objectives."

From the seller side, we hear:

  • "So I'm supposed to tell you why my site is better than the 180 other sites that received an RFP?"

  • "Great, another 'we expect totally out-of-the-box thinking' proposal!"

  • "Gee, we get a grand total of two hours to pull together a rock-solid proposal that nails the objective. How convenient."

  • "We're honored to be invited to be a strategic partner and meet the client's long-term goals with the exciting test budget of $5,000?"

I could probably add to both lists for a while, but I think you get the drift.

Getting Back on Track

Here's my list of suggested best practices to get the most out of your next RFP experience.

Buyer side:

  • It may sound basic, but take the time to write a thorough brief by providing adequate background and clearly articulating the objective, strategy, and desired tactics you are seeking. (Note: If you are not clear on the difference between an objective, a strategy, and a tactic, go find the most senior person in your company and barricade yourself in her office until you get it straight in your head. It's that fundamental to a good RFP.)

  • Be clear and realistic with timing. The longer you give someone to marshal resources on your client's behalf, the better proposals you will receive. If it's a rush job, clearly indicate in bold letters up front you have a critical deadline. Some reps may decline participation on that point alone -- which is a good thing for everyone.

  • Do your homework. If you have specific targeting goals, leverage the available tools to narrow your search to the sites that best represent a good solution based on the budget. Then develop your RFP target list. Too many buyers are "blast-questing" proposals to sites that have no chance of making the cut, so respect everyone's time.

  • Be realistic with expectations. The entire industry is focused on simplifying the process of buying and implementing online advertising. Asking for the moon as part of a straightforward program is contrary to why you want to use an RFP. If you want to create the next big breakthrough, why not schedule a face-to-face briefing with your top properties and be prepared to collaborate rather than just fishing with a form?

  • Be respectful of everyone's time. Promptly reply when feedback is expected and be prepared to explain why someone did not make the cut. It's not just proper business etiquette -- after all, you got some free work done on behalf of your client. More important, maintaining good business relationships is the only way you'll help your client get a better response for the next campaign.

Seller side:

  • Timing is key. Responding in a timely manner is fundamental to a buyer who is trying to wrangle several proposals. Always acknowledge when you get an RFP and note if you plan to participate. (Note to sales managers: Make sure you properly transition accounts. Nothing is more frustrating to a buyer than sending an important request to a dead email account or blank voicemail box.)

  • Respond appropriately. If the RFP is not clear about where questions should be directed, find out how you can inquire, then provide questions in written form.

  • Read the proposal from top to bottom at least twice before you ask your first question. You'll be amazed at how things can become clearer after a second reading.

  • Meet the request. Sure, you've got sales goals, but be sure to totally address the request first. Then, provide additional options. Let's face it, almost everyone loves options. Still, we all get turned off if our initial request is overlooked. Nail the request (including the budget), then upsell all you want.

  • No rug-pulling, please. Make sure the inventory is there when you sell it. If it's perishable, just make sure the buyer knows the details and any corresponding restrictions. Nothing will drive a buyer insane faster than getting a client excited about an opportunity only to have to call back 10 minutes later with an "Oops, we didn't have all the details" apology.

I'm sure some of you have other suggestions, so send 'em my way. Together we can utilize the RFP process the way it was meant to be... and leave the gamesmanship for more appropriate things -- say the upcoming new edition of Doom?

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James Hering As SVP and director of interactive marketing at t:m interactive, JamesHering's teamdevelops a full range of interactive solutions for a variety of clients.Since 1994, he's been involved in development and evolution of AmericanAirlines' AA.com. With over 10 million registered users, it's one of theworld's most successful e-commerce sites. James' experience includes contentpublishing and development; online CRM; sponsorship/partnerships; searchengine marketing; and execution and implementation of AA's award-winninginteractive campaigns. Other client experience includes Adams Golf, BellHelicopter, eiStream, Nationwide Insurance, Nortel Networks, Match.com,SABRE Travel Information Network, Subaru of America, Reno Air, Nestle Foods,Texas Instruments, Texas Tourism and Pizza Hut. His group's honors includethe Internet Marketing Association's Excellence in Interactive Marketing,WebAwards for Site Design, Communication Arts, NY Festival, iNOVA awards,CASIE Interactive awards and @d:Tech awards.

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