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Moving On

  |  July 29, 2010   |  Comments

Has the request for proposal process run its course?

My family and I are moving to a new house next week, and as we pack up our belongings I'm coming face to face with how much useless stuff we own.

I came across this one contraption in the basement - a set of little ceramic bowls, aluminum mixing spoons, and a Bunsen burner - that had the appearance of something highly illegal. Turns out it was a s'mores making kit. I think we can live without it.

The whole packing process got me thinking about the things we do at work that don't make sense any more. The problem is, absent the stark keep/discard decision that packing up your house forces, most of us just keep on doing them.

That's a missed opportunity, because as Peter Drucker wrote about years ago, the ongoing practice of abandoning behaviors that no longer make sense is something that separates great companies from also-rans.

So what would it mean to clean house for digital marketers?

Let's start at the tip of the iceberg, with the request for proposal (RFP) - a process that's begging for big changes, if not total abandonment.

The request for proposal process is a relic of an era when an online media plan was a perfectly comprised collection of distinct publisher sites. Agencies would write up a campaign description, send it to sites, and they came back with ideas, placements, and pricing.

The request for proposal process allowed agencies to create apples-to-apples comparisons of site proposals, usually along dimensions like reach, composition, cost, value-add, and impact. Once the request for proposals were returned, they paved the way for negotiation.

The request for proposal may still have some utility, but it has too many gaps to be the primary driver of planning in this era.

First of all, the agency's job isn't just to pick the best 10 sites for a plan anymore. In today's marketplace, only a small percentage of all impressions are sold directly by publisher sales forces, with the vast majority sold through networks and exchanges.

The job today is about assembling the right combination of approaches - some based on content, some based on audiences - not just the right combination of properties.

The job today is increasingly driven by newer considerations: data overlays, social connections, and mobile usage, to name three. These approaches all have unique characteristics that aren't easily reduced to apples-to-apples spreadsheet comparisons. There is just too much nuance and too much change to think that the same process that worked 10 years ago can be as effective today.

Another failing of the request for proposal process is that it outsources media creativity to publishers. I think it's a lot to ask of a publisher to come up with great ideas based on a brief sent over e-mail and probably due in a few days. Plus, it puts the agency team in the role of judge, picking the best ideas submitted by others.

That's a very passive stance. To add real value, by delivering inspired ideas that get noticed by time-starved consumers, the agency needs to be much more active in the process.

I think a more effective model for the world we work in today would be guided by much deeper collaboration between agencies and the publishers and media technology partners they work with.

Agencies have access to more than enough data from both historical campaigns and third-party research to develop a very sound short list before active planning begins. From there, the short-listed partners can be brought in to discuss, brainstorm, and craft solutions.

Partners would be given much more visibility into the entire context of a plan, including the other components of it. They'd be given information about past performance beyond "you performed well/you didn't perform well" so that they could make appropriate adjustments. In short, they'd become part of the team.

I can think of two potential downsides of this approach, although I'm sure there are others.

One: this is a lot more work, for both the agency and the partners. But it's hard for me to see how this couldn't yield better outcomes for clients, so increased time requirements isn't a viable excuse. We'll just need to strip out activities that don't add value to make time for those that do.

Two: there's the risk that by treating short-listed partners with more openness the agency loses some negotiating power. Maybe. But I think that bringing partners into the fold could actually be its own incentive to keep pricing competitive and deliver programs that make financial sense. Plus, the advent of the exchange marketplace has created such overall transparency that agencies are armed with plenty of information to guide pricing discussions, even without the request for proposal. When it's all said and done, I don't think pricing would increase.

Great media planning today isn't about evaluating, it's about creating. We need to make sure our processes help us toward that end.

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Adam Cahill

Adam Cahill is the EVP, Media at Hill Holliday. You can connect with him on Twitter at @adamcahill.

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