The RFP is DOA

by Tom Campbell


  • Posted: 4 months ago

How to find a marketing agency

But save your tears, there's a better way to find a creative partner

{Part 1 of 2}

Throughout my 25 years in the design and branding business I've seen my share of requests for proposal: the good, the bad and the ugly. We've played the game; won some, lost some and ignored others. Win or lose, it's always felt like a cumbersome, time-wasting process for all parties involved—a necessary, unavoidable evil.

As business and technology have evolved, the process of using RFPs to find creative partners has remained largely unchanged. Like the rapidiograph, ruling pen and stat camera, the RFP is a remnant of bygone times in the creative industry, before technology paved a more efficient path.

When it comes to innovative technology companies finding a creative marketing partner, the RFP is DOA. The good news is, there's a better, simpler way. The agency interview process, fueled by modern technology and perfected with good, old-fashioned communication, provides a much more effective way for clients and agencies to find one another and forge longstanding relationships built on trust. As a rule, we don't respond to RFPs. With a few notable exceptions, our experience has shown that RFPs start the process off on the wrong foot and don't lead to long-term, fruitful relationships.

The RFP process for finding creative partners is built upon several outdated premises:

  • It's difficult and time-intensive to find creative agencies.  
  • Creative services are a commodity. Competition will get you the best price.
  • Agencies competing for my work means I have to do less work. 
  • It's the best/only way to know who will do a good job. 
  • It's the most efficient way to find the most talented firms. 

In this article I'll offer a counter perspective to dispel these notions. Before we dive into the best way to find a marketing agency, we'll break down the four types of RFPs, warts and all.

The ABCs of RFPs

We've seen it all: 40-pagers, half-pagers, typo-riddled train wrecks and magnificent manifestos. RFPs fall into one of four categories: 

1. Show me what you've got

This is more of an RFFW (request for free work) than it is an RFP. Typically these RFPs briefly describe the company and their audience, loosely articulate a strategic challenge and specifically request creative deliverables as part of the pitch. Responding agencies may be asked to speculatively come up with a marketing strategy, ad campaign or home page mockup. They may also be asked to determine a budget for the project.
While this model works for some industries, it's not the best way to find a marketing partner. Speculative work is a contradiction in terms. By definition, speculative work asks agencies to draw conclusions based on conjecture rather than knowledge. 
This approach immediately removes some of the most talented agencies from contention, as they have firm no spec policies or are too busy with paid client work to stop and do free work at the possibility of getting a new client.
Those that remain to compete go back to their corners, develop creative work without client input and hope their dog and pony show wins. The proposals you receive will be a reflection of who needs the work more than it will be a reflection of the best available talent or who will be the best fit.   

2. Scoping out the sitch

Ideally, you'll have a good feel for what you need before you issue an RFP, but that's not always the case. For your RFP to have any chance of succeeding, you first need to clearly articulate your strategic goals, determine an appropriate budget and have some idea how you'll get there tactically.
The catch 22 many businesses face is you can't determine scope without a creative partner, but can't find a creative partner without a defined scope. It's natural to think the RFP can solve this challenge, but when you use an RFP to determine project scope and budget, you start the game with a losing hand. 
It's not uncommon for a client and agency to work together to scope out a campaign together—in fact, it's our preferred way of doing business. However, we do that after they're a client, not before. Asking agencies to scope out your project before engaging them is like asking a pilot to land a plane before knowing what kind of plane it is, or how much fuel it has, or if they're even really a pilot.
Fortunately, you can engage most agencies for a diagnostic assessment at a much smaller investment than fully engaging them. This will allow you to determine scope and budget together and give both parties a feel for the relationship before fully committing. 

3. The fix

Sometimes an organization has selected who it wants to work with, but still issues an RFP. The intentions are more auspicious than malicious—but the results are nonetheless deleterious. This scenario is most detrimental to building client-agency trust. 
Some organizations, primarily municipal and non-profit, have in their bylaws a requirement to solicit multiple bids on projects of a certain size. You may issue an RFP in an effort either to get your chosen agency to "sharpen their pencils" or to avoid any impression of favoritism. 
Often when the fix is in, unwitting agencies will invest their time thinking they have a fair shot at the work. Sometimes other agencies will hear about it (it's a small world, after all) and avoid wasting their time. Other times, the RFP will be written in a way that only the pre-selected agency qualifies. No lie, we once received an RFP for a city logo design that required responding agencies to have previously designed 17 city logos. That's a strangely specific number. 

4. As good as it gets

RFPs have been used to procure contracts for a long time, and many organizations have it dialed in. If you're not convinced that agency interviews are a better way to find a creative partner, or you're still bound to the RFP process, there are things you can do to assure you issue the strongest possible RFP and net the best possible results. 
A strong RFP will convey an accurate picture of your company, audience and strategic goals. It will provide a concise, detailed accounting of your project scope, schedule and budget. It will communicate what you're looking for in a creative partnership and what criteria you'll use to make your decision. It will be specific enough to allow agencies to qualify themselves in or out. This will net you a few good proposals and a couple crappy ones versus a few good ones and dozens of crappy ones. 
Can the template. If you use the same RFP template to buy a $10 million building and a $10,000 logo, you're starting off on the wrong foot. Strip out extraneous stuff, don't require more structure or detail than you need. Don't require your creative partner to carry a million dollar physical injury liability policy—no one's going to get hurt. 
Save a few trees. Many organizations, specifically municipal, will require numerous bound hard copies to be delivered on site. Multiply that by the number of responding agencies, factor in fuel emissions, and you've murdered a small forest before your website project even starts. We love paper more than the next guy, and back in the day our paper proposals kicked ass—but alas, technology has provided a better way. Organizations large and small have implemented paper-free procurement; the City of Boulder is a great example.

The problem with RFPs is not that competition is bad. Competition is good. The problem is that the playing field is broken.   

In the grand old days of Mad Men, Bosom Buddies and Thirtysomething, the RFP was how client-agency love connections were made. The democratization of data and the rise of specialty agencies have built an entirely new playing field for clients and agencies to come together. Clients with highly specialized needs and the appropriately skilled agencies know how to find each other.  

Businesses are abandoning the RFP, agencies are leaving the dog and pony at home, and together they're building beautiful, fruitful relationships.

Read part 2: The best way to find a marketing agency.

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About Toolbox Creative:

Toolbox Creative is a B2B technology branding firm. We speak Engineer, translating complex technologies and bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it — converting tech talk into brand love and connecting tech companies with their customers.

We are on a mission to help technologists, innovators and engineers prove how their big ideas and innovative technology can change the world.

Our Brand Engineering process empowers technology brands to take on the dominant players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increase brand equity and grab market share.