How Zappos.com’s Calamitous RFP Went Down

Transparency is such an uplifting word, it’s easy to forget what a mess it can create. Case in point: Zappos.com’s chaotic agency RFP, which began as a fairly simple review of 20 or so shops and then devolved into a free-for-all involving 104 firms, many of whom were evidently all but ignored by the client who’s business they sought.

For a digital ad reporter, it’s rare indeed to have the veil lifted on an agency review process. Which is why I’m very grateful to El Segundo, Calif.-based agency Ignited, which was disgruntled enough with Zappos’ “cattle call” to publish metrics suggesting staffers at the online shoe retailer barely glanced at its proposal.

Here’s a rough chronology of how things went down, pieced together from Wolfsohn’s post, Zappos’s response, news reports, and tweets:

Early June: Zappos puts its account into play, sending an RFP to 20 or so agencies and inviting approximately 16 of them to present.

June 13: Adweek publishes a story describing the review process and publishing the RFP.

June 14: Agencies flood Zappos with requests to join the RFP. Zappos is, for the most part, receptive.

June 14 to early July: Of 170 agencies that requested to participate, fully 104 submit work. In the process Zappos staffers are flooded with a grab bag of freebies, as evidenced by their tweets. Said one: “It’s ad agency pitch day at Zappos. We’re being showered with pizza, ice cream, Red Bulls, a bowl of airline booze …”

July 12: Ignited’s Mike Wolfsohn publishes his critique of Zappos’ “cattle call,” including Google Analytics data suggesting the company viewed only 5 of 25 pages on the blog it created for the pitch, with an average page-view time of 14 seconds. He writes, “If Zappos wasn’t prepared to evaluate 80+ responses they shouldn’t have opened the review beyond the initial 16 agencies they contacted.”

July 12 to 14: Many agency reps hail Wolfsohn’s salvo on Twitter, blogs and comments. A few blast it.

July 14: Zappos defends itself, saying “It’s pretty obvious that no one was forced to participate.”

It’s hard to say whether the outcry will lead to any soul-searching on the part of clients about how they conduct future reviews. Wolfsohn himself appears to think it won’t.

“The red flags were hard to miss,” he wrote. “The RFP was posted on Adweek.com (so much for carefully screening the participants) and the brief asked for ‘storyboards and mock-ups’ to be included in the first-round response (premature to say the least). But the temptation of winning the Zappos account was even harder to resist.”

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