How (and Whether) to Respond to an RFP

Requests for proposal (RFPs) continue to be a factor in agency life, despite the fact that no one – either on the writing or receiving end of them – is happy with them (case in point: search Google using the terms “RFP” and “evil” and you’ll get 177,000 results).

On the agency side, RFPs are unpopular because they’re huge time sinks (a 50- or 100-page RFP can take more than a week to complete), their close rate is typically very low, and agencies rightly suspect that RFPs are often rigged (or “wired”) in a process that’s just an expensive charade (because an insider has already gotten the business but the prospect must still “go through the motions” of selecting a vendor using neutral criteria). Prospects have been known to abuse the RFP process in order to solicit creative ideas “on spec.” Once these ideas have been captured, the vendor whose price is lowest is given the job of implementing and executing them. This practice, while it may or may not be illegal, is offensive and deeply unethical, theft of intellectual property. Yes, agencies can try to protect themselves against this by putting terms into place when responding to RFPs but because clients tend to refuse to sign agreements that bind them legally for theft of IP the issue is left unaddressed.

Worse, RFP responses (the proposals) are often not even read by the prospect, a fact demonstrated back in 2009 when Zappos.com (now owned by Amazon) put out an RFP that 104 agencies responded to. One agency had the foresight to put its completed RFP on the Web, where actual usage could be monitored. According to Google Analytics, Zappos personnel only read five of the 25-page RFP, spending less than 14 seconds on each page as reported in AdAge.

Things are little better on the prospect side. “Cattle call”-style RFPs result in wasted time evaluating multiple proposals. RFPs, which typically focus narrowly on price, are inherently biased toward the cheapest vendors, not necessarily the best. The result is unhappy relationships and a high churn rate.

Still, RFPs aren’t going away tomorrow. Here’s what I think you should do if you get one:

  1. Make sure it’s not “wired” (rigged) or “a fishing expedition.” Is the RFP reasonably well written or look like something an intern created? Are the questions irrelevant or even absurd? Are there errors or other signs that it was quickly dashed off? Are critical details (e.g. budget) missing? If the RFP doesn’t pass this simple smell test, throw it away.
  2. Refuse to do the document dance. When you receive an RFP, get on the phone with the prospect. Use this opportunity to attempt to move the discussion from the bureaucratic to the human level and try to negotiate a better deal (“I’ll do this RFP but only after a meeting with a higher-up”). If the prospect says “no,” that’s fine: you’ve just saved your team a week or more of fruitless work.
  3. Never provide spec creative. Too many agencies are willing to give away their intellectual property to “land a whale.” Don’t ever make this mistake.

I know I sound harsh and perhaps hard-bitten. But RFPs are such one-sided documents, and are so easily abused by those who send them that the only way to win is “not to play the game.”

A fair amount of this fault belongs to in-house people who keep sending RFPs out. To those people, I would offer the following:

  1. Use RFIs instead of RFPs. Do you really want to spend hours combing through dozens of 50- to 100-page documents? I didn’t think so. If you use RFIs (Requests for Information) instead of RFPs, you can reduce your consideration set from 100 to five or 10, saving yourself and your respondents lots of pain. You can use some of this saved time to actually meet with qualified vendors and have a conversation with them.
  2. Include details. What kind of marketing problem are you trying to solve? What’s your budget (either an absolute number or range)? What are your goals? Don’t expect anyone to hit your targets if you don’t include them.
  3. Remember: you get the agency you deserve. If you’re sending out cookie-cutter RFPs, expect to get cookie-cutter responses. Sure, you’ll get samples, and maybe even some free work out of the exercise. But that’s no way to choose a long-term strategic partner.

Agencies: what’s your stance on filling out RFPs? I’d love to know. Clients: Do you feel you got the process down and get the best agencies via an RFP process? Publishers: RFPs abound in the paid media side of the business. Are RFPs working there?

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