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Why the Digital RFP Process Is Broken — and 6 Ways to Fix It

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We like to think we are smart decision-makers. We weigh the pros and cons. We fill out a spreadsheet comparing features and costs. We read customer reviews and analyze competitive matrixes.

This approach might work when you are buying something such as a copier or a car.

But when it comes to choosing an agency partner, the comparing and contrasting and reviewing can fall short.

Chemistry can’t be measured. You can’t assign a point value to how well you work with another team.

It’s about an emotional connection. And it’s the main reason why the RFP process is undeniably broken.

Getting rid of it is not an option. The RFP process is here to stay, but it does need to evolve said Ron Fierman, a partner at Digital Pulp.

“We have to work with the fact that everybody wants to go through important due diligence, and we are not against that at all,” Fierman said. “But let’s try to make it a more human process. Let’s try to make sure the output of the process gives the agency the chance to show itself in its most honest and best light and gives clients the opportunity to really compare apples to apples.”

The Problem With RFPs

The RFP process isn’t easy. And Digital Pulp has seen the increasing importance of the format. The agency started in the early days of the web revolution (it was founded in 1996) and built its reputation through working with brands such as Alta Vista and DoubleClick. Today, it provides a wide range of digital services to brands such as Bausch + Lomb, Harvard Kennedy School, and Dartmouth. Fierman manages the day-to-day operations of the agency.

With nearly 20 years in the digital industry, Digital Pulp has seen a lot of change -- from both a marketing perspective and the business perspective, which includes the rise in prominence of procurement.

“You’re not buying equipment, you’re not buying widgets, you are buying talent,” Fierman said. “It is very hard to wrap a traditional procurement process around the acquisition of talent.”

Procurement wants to know -- in the end -- how much something is going to cost. But they forget that this isn’t about comparing this copier to that copier. It is more akin to building a house. You can construct something for $100,000 and you can also build a "house" for $100 million. It all depends on what you want to build and how many corners you want to cut. And most agencies don’t won’t to be responsible for a building something that is likely to collapse or cause harm to a brand.

In addition, the RFP process is a time-intensive and costly enterprise.

Digital Pulp’s team spends -- on average -- around 30 to 40 hours on each one.

Winning a new account that begins with a RFP includes staff time, outsourced consulting or freelance work, travel, the cost of competitive or market research, and time spent gathering information and writing the proposal. If the agency makes it to the pitch portion, this will include additional travel, the cost of creating pitch materials and creative, and leave-behind materials.

It’s not surprising that agencies can get themselves into situations where even if they win the account, they will still lose money on the project.

In addition, many clients continue to struggle with digital projects.

“The new mix of channels hasn’t helped, as many clients are in the dark when it comes to what’s fair agency payment in technologically complicated spaces like digital and mobile,” Fierman said. “As more marketers call digital reviews, there’s often a gulf between what clients expect to pay and what agencies expect to earn for their work.”

This gap has widened as brands may only need to issue a RFP for a website redesign once every five or seven years. That’s a lifetime in digital years. The problem is that this also makes clients think that the evolution of technology has reduced the cost of development. Easy access to coding classes and drag-and-drop website editors make building a website seem like something anyone can do it -- your nephew, your long-lost cousin, your child’s kindergarten teacher. But as most agencies know, the advancements have only complicated and expanded the universe of possibilities. Consider responsive web design and development as an example of this.

6 Ways to Fix the RFP and Pitch Process

Beyond how a brand words an RFP and the type of information they ask, there are some key ways boths marketers and agencies can improve the process of finding a partner.

Respect What an Agency’s “Product” Is

An agency is basically a creator of ideas, which are translated into some digital or physical form. Don’t require firms to abdicate ownership of the ideas they produce during a competitive pitch.

Sears asked agencies to give over the ownership of the ideas they presented during a pitch when it put its account in review in 2011. Luckily, many agencies opted out of being involved in pitching to the behemoth retailer.

Allow for Chemistry

There needs to be a human element to the process, said Fierman.

His concern is that this part happens too late in the process -- during the pitch if the agency even makes it that far.

This is one of the most important elements for determining not only if the two teams are a good fit but if the relationship will last. With all the time and money spent on the RFP and pitching process, marketing teams need to think about the long-term, not just an immediate need.

Be Open to Communication 

Brands that send out RFPs but don’t allow for follow-up questions are causing agencies frustration and are in the end, damaging the final product. These requests might say, “We need a more modern-looking website.” They fail to address the why. Do you want more leads? More sales? Higher conversion rates? A better user experience?

“Procurement has a set of rules that they are going by to make sure everybody is treated equally, so they are not encouraging conversations between the prospective agency end and the client team,” Fierman said.

Agencies want to solve business problems. To show a brand they can do this better than another agency, they need to be asked the right questions and have the right information.

Don’t Treat It Like an Open Casting Call

Brands and procurement should only invite agencies to the RFP or pitch process if they are a good fit. There shouldn’t be a quota that needs to be filled. Brands should pre-select a group based on experience or needs and be convinced that any one of these agencies could be the brand’s next partner. 

Give a Number

No one likes to talk about money. But this is business. It is about money. Give a budget range at the very least, so that an agency can create a more targeted plan within or around the brand’s budget and timeline. Remember: you can build a house for various price points. Agencies need what limits they are working under when developing a solution.

Make a Choice

Agencies need to remember that they also have a choice. They can respond or opt out. 

Fierman and his team consider each opportunity and ask themselves: What is our likelihood of winning? Can we be confident in the pitch? Is it clear that we are a good choice for this project because of our experience?

Be honest with your team about whether the opportunity is a good fit. You can't enter a pitch with the approach that you will jump through any and all hoops, and that this attitude will make your agency a contender. If anything, clients can smell desperation.

Agencies need to be ready to end the process if it isn't a good fit. 

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