An Admittedly Self-Serving Guide to Better RFPs

Aug. 19, 2013

Thom Villing
Thom Villing

An Admittedly Self-Serving Guide to Better RFPs

Like most agencies, we receive a fair amount of RFPs (Requests for Proposal). Some are short and to the point. Some, well, not so much. Every client is different and every client has different compliance issues or legal obligations. Those things come with the territory and we get it. That said, here is my blatantly self-serving set of guidelines for anyone issuing an RFP.

  1. Is an RFP even necessary?
    It seems like a great deal of time and effort is expended for what often can be accomplished with a simple phone call or email. RFPs inherently add a greater level of formality than is probably necessary. If you have a good relationship with your agency, do you really need to put their feet to the fire by making the next project a competitive situation? Simply tell your current agency what you want to accomplish, what your expectations are and what the budget is.
  2. Avoid a procurement mentality
    Many large organizations assign RFPs to the procurement department. That’s fine for ordering “x” number of widgets or certain commodities. But marketing services are not mass-produced and can seldom be defined by a set of rigid specifications. This is especially true of creative services. The most powerful ideas may be incredibly simple or unavoidably complex and almost impossible to predict until the development process begins. In addition, since estimates for these types of services are usually based on hours and hourly rates, it is very difficult to evaluate the relative efficiency of one agency over another.
  3. If you expect free work, say so. And understand that it is an unreasonable expectation
    The expectation of free work is a disservice not only to the agency but also to the agency’s clients.

    Many people feel that speculative work is part of an agency’s cost of doing business – and that it is the best way to gauge what the agency can do specifically for them. First, the best barometer of an agency’s skills is evident from its body of work for other clients. If the agency consistently produces high quality, effective work, chances are it will do the same for you.

    Second, if you believe you need to see work specific to your needs, you should understand that you are asking the agency to give you their product for free. Would you do the same if one of your customers asked for free samples that could cost thousands of dollars? Most likely not. Even a modest fee makes the statement that you respect the value of the agency’s time and talents.

    The third point is, be clear about your expectations. Don’t make agencies guess as to whether or not their competitors will have an unfair advantage because no one knows if speculative work is expected.
  4. State your objectives clearly and completely
    Many RFPs contain too much extraneous information and not nearly enough context and direction. Define your objectives and expectations clearly with enough background information to provide the proper context for the assignment.
  5. Be accessible
    I am always amazed when an RFP comes in and it very sternly warns against contact with the potential client. Quality work can’t be done in a vacuum. There needs to be dialogue with the people critical to the relationship. Kudos to the agency that asks the types of questions that can provide valuable insights and will result in a better solution. If you are concerned about everyone not having equal access to information, publish the questions and answers for all to see.
  6. Cattle calls won’t produce more beef
    Please, please do not invite every agency in the region to participate. It is a waste of everyone’s time, including yours. And the quality of responses will actually be diminished because the better agencies may opt out when they see that this is clearly a cattle call with no real attempt to thin the herd.
  7. Be realistic in your deadlines
    It is unfair to the agencies (and their clients) to have unreasonable timelines. This may have a negative impact on the participation by some quality agencies that are too busy with current client work to respond properly in an extremely short time frame.
  8. Respect all participants; the agency that loses the battle may someday help you win the war
    After an agency puts its heart and soul into a competitive pitch, it is disheartening enough to lose, but demoralizing to find out via a letter or email. Or worse yet, not getting the courtesy of any notification at all. Please alert the non-winners promptly and candidly by phone or even in person.  Candor is invaluable. There is little to be gained by hearing “well, it was a close decision that could have gone either way but agency “A” just had a better idea or process.” Sure, it’s hard to tell someone they lost but telling everyone they finished “second” or whitewashing the real reasons for the selection ultimately provides no information that the agency can build on to improve its performance. Sometimes the winning agency may not live up to expectations created through the RFP process and you may conclude that one of the agencies that lost this battle is the very agency you want as an ally in future marketing wars.

These views may be self-serving coming from an agency, but use them as food for thought if your organization is considering issuing an RFP.

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