Request for Proposals (RFPs) are a long-standing tradition among companies and organizations seeking creative professional services. But it’s a tradition that we’re leaving for reasons that might be useful to both buyers and sellers of these services.
RFPs supposedly achieve four goals:
- An apples-to-apples comparison of competing firms.
- Cut chances of a “bait-and-switch” on staffing levels, and avoid mismatched expectations on deliverables.
- Sampling the creative and strategic abilities of the competing firms.
- Maintain selection process control.
The last several years have brought seismic changes to the marketplace of creative professionals. They’ve undercut RFPs’ ability to meet companies’ goals in five ways:
First, freelancer sites such as Upwork, Freelancer and The Mom Project have severed the long-standing pairing of execution and strategic services. For companies that need execution help for work they’ve already designed, these freelancer bazaars are much more efficient ways to search, compare and select execution services.
Second, for companies needing strategy and planning, RFPs are increasingly obstacles to accessing expert counsel. Agencies skilled at diagnosing and solving company problems need several rounds of in-depth, strategic questions covering the cost of failure, institutional assets and past attempts at solutions. The RFP is designed to keep firms at a distance by standardizing interactions with them. Firms get the least information when they need it most.
Third, RFPs typically demand diagnosis and strategy for free. But those are the hardest services to deliver well, requiring years of experience over hundreds of projects and clients. They’re also the highest-margin, most valuable offerings that RFPs want as a loss-leader to win lower-margin, commoditized execution services.
Management consultant David C. Baker illustrates this well, sharing that top-tier expert firms can only afford to offer execution services when they are hired to design the strategic plan.
As more firms file for divorce from the RFP (see here, here, here and here), two types of firms remain in the RFP applicant pool: The newest, least-experienced firms that need all the business they can get; and the big global firms with business development teams highly trained on selling you the promise of their services. RFPs’ competitive field is being slowly emptied of the experts, leaving the desperate and the “givers of good meeting” to pursue them.
Neither type of shop is geared to solving specialized, high-stakes problems, but they are willing to tolerate the gamesmanship that’s common among RFPs:
- 84 percent of the time (!) RFPs are used by someone with a pre-identified favorite who still needs a CYA exercise with his or her boss.
- Many won’t provide a budget, inviting sticker shock or under-designed proposals.
- They withhold what success is worth to the company, what’s at stake—and to whom within the company.
- Too many insist on government-style distribution of one competitor’s questions to all participants, a direct deterrent to anyone with an ounce of strategic thinking in their heads.
That brings us to the fourth challenge for RFPs. By their design, RFPs test for the wrong stuff because they don’t “start with why” (H/T to leadership author Simon Sinek).
At least 90 percent of RFPs are written for important projects that need strategy, planning and execution in that order. But their respective processes typically call for high-stakes proposing and pitching, anchored on a creative idea. That’s what consultant Blair Enns calls “The Big Reveal”—that impressive, creative idea delivered by business development teams to catch the attention of the RFP selection committee. The RFP process rewards sales performance, not the strategic insights it seeks but discourages.
Here’s the fifth problem: The teams that pitch you for your business are rarely the teams who will pitch your business to others. The EVP pitches you, and the first-year associate does the work. That’s because every global firm has an interest in winning your business via its best pitching team, then delivering the highest-cost service through the least-cost employees.
In our industry, this practice is called “bait and switch,” and the large agency world runs on it. RFP-winning agencies often deliver just enough strategy and creativity to win the business, then provide over-priced commoditized offerings—high-end freelance help.
Yes, there are exceptions, but we’ve been hired to clean up enough messes left behind by failed RFPs to know that this exception is not the norm.
There is a significantly better, 6-step option to consider for the benefit of both companies and agencies:
- Confirm that you need strategy and design, rather than just extra free-lance help.
- Clearly define and communicate budgets, the cost of failure, current in-house communications, starting points and goals.
- Design a set of open-ended questions to use in a series of strategic, 1:1 conversations with competing firms.
- Select candidate firms with content streams that inform you and websites that demonstrate success at what you need them to do.
- Keep a comparison table as you have those strategic conversations, under NDA and focused on numbers 1-3 above. They will create the opportunity to see how the people you will work with (insist that they attend the meeting) respond and ideate.
- Watch the questions they ask, not just the answers they give. Go with the firm that performs the best.
This alternative isn’t flawless, but it produces a much stronger sense of how agencies can handle specialized needs, think strategically and fit with your company’s culture.
In marketing and PR, being blunt is rare because no one is ever supposed to throw an elbow, at least when others are watching. There are plenty of our competitors who will pass this around and say we’re foolish.
Perhaps. Regardless, we’re done with RFPs. To tell the truth, we were never that into them anyway.