Two weeks ago, Heidi Browning, our executive media director, spoke at the Search Engine Strategies conference on a panel entitled “Weird Science: The next generation in media planning and buying.” What initially started as a straightforward panel quickly became a passionate debate between vendors and clients about the challenges and pitfalls around the standard RFP (define) process. At the time, I’m sure the panelists and audience were surprised the conversation jumped so far off topic. But given the surge in proposal activity in the market, it’s not so surprising.
Clients aren’t as reticent to change agencies as they were when the Internet was in the penalty box. Now, with a creative renaissance well under way, there’s a lot of activity as marketers chase big-result ideas.
What was the dialogue’s essence?
When engaged in heavily managed pitches, agencies expressed frustration about not being able to interact with prospects to better understand them, their strategies, business objectives, processes, and organizational dynamics.
Clients feel agencies could be more respectful of the process and are sometimes unresponsive to agencies’ specific questions and needs. They want agencies to be more forthcoming with strategic insight, such as the kind of insight shared on the panel.
Both sides want the best thing: a great partnership that’s mutually profitable. But they have different ways of getting there. Adding procurement to the decision process adds yet another layer of complexity agencies must manage — and manage thoughtfully.
The Internet is hot again. Client budgets are increasing. Agencies are aggressively hiring. With business heating up, agencies have to be very selective about what to pitch and to assess their likelihood of winning before they enter the fray. As an agency head, I first ask our team if we have a relationship with the prospect.
Why? It’s very hard to pitch someone you don’t know. It’s the ultimate first date. It requires the agency pull out all the stops, making it a high risk and expensive. You hope there will be a high return.
With this in mind, I thought about the RFP process: how it stands today and how both sides of the partnership could make it better.
To join Organic, all senior hires must present a case study in which they pitch a group of Organic team members as if we were prospects. I hear several “pitches” a month this way. Plus, vendors pitch our agency all the time. When I add these experiences to my own pitch experience, I always get the same five get-it-rights:
- Listen. Read the brief. Listen to the prospect describe the challenge or opportunity. Ask thoughtful questions. When you’re with the prospect, it’s your opportunity to learn, not impress.
- Speak a simple language. Nothing’s worse than too much empty marketing jargon. Keep your language simple and customer-focused.
- Focus on key messages. The best RFP responses are short and to the point. Be ruthless about what to include, as much of what you add obscures the key messages.
- Respect the process. If a prospect wants zero interaction, you must respect that.
- Make your experience relevant. Often, agencies present case studies that are familiar to them. They see the relevance to the prospects’ business and short-cut the explanation, assuming the connection is obvious. It’s not. Present a few strong cases in more depth, and take the time to make them relevant to the prospect.
Being in the agency business, I have five things prospects could do to produce a better outcome from the process:
- Think about what you’re asking for, and when. It’s devastating to the agency team if they pitch, win, and then learn the initiative wasn’t funded or is delayed indefinitely. If the project isn’t ready for primetime, it shouldn’t be out for bid. Also, every year at least one prospect sends us an RFP in mid-or early December and requests responses the first week of January. I understand why. Everyone wants to start the year with a bang. If it’s a great opportunity, we happily pitch and will continue to do so. But it means the team misses an important opportunity to recharge their batteries while much of the world is out of the office.
- Start with a short list. With a bit of research, it quickly becomes clear which the four to six agencies are that would be the best fit (based on client roster, reputation, size, and skill mix). It’s hard to feel special when you’re one of 20.
- Engage in dialogue. Basic qualifications are important and are taken care of in the written document. It’s more important to understand how an agency really thinks. Ask a question based on a real-life business case or how it’d solve your real-life problem. These discussions will tell you much more about an agency than any piece of paper can.
- Be specific about what you do and don’t want. Agencies spend a lot of time guessing what a prospect wants. We’ve had a couple pitches this year when the prospect said, “Come in for a chemistry check,” but it expected us to present ideas. Fortunately, we were prepared. Had we taken the direction at face value, we would have been empty handed in the chemistry check. Don’t make us guess.
- Give very direct feedback to winners and losers. If you use an evaluation framework, share your results with the agencies. You can disguise the other participants, but benchmarking is incredibly useful regardless if the business is won or lost.
I hope these thoughts will continue to fuel our collective conversation about how we can all get more from the RFP process, make more informed business decisions, and pitch to win.