Whenever an RFP (request for proposal) drops into my mailbox, I get a very familiar feeling: it's a sense of opportunity, pretty similar to the opportunity offered by a lottery ticket, combined with a healthy dollop of dread. The dread centers on the enormous amount of work involved to pull the RFP together -- the late nights, the lost weekends, the hungry kids, the anguish on setting prices -- multiplied by the slim probability of actually winning it.
For many agencies, the decision to respond to an RFP presents a dilemma. It is akin to deciding whether to go to the ball and risk being a wallflower or guaranteeing your wallflower status by refusing to go at all. For our agency, it’s even more complicated as we don’t have employees. Instead, we have a community of members who work closely together. This puts the decision to submit an RFP into sharp focus as collaborators have to actively choose to respond and pitch an account.
When deciding whether to respond to a RFP, consider these four approaches and how they will influence your final decision.
1) We want to pitch. We really, really want to pitch.
I’m not suggesting that you go through a month of soul searching to come to this conclusion. You’ll know after the first team call. Do we want to win this account? Are our hearts in it? Because, I assure you, if one of the competing agencies does have its heart in it, it is likely to win. There’s nothing that shines through more to the client than heart. That is, after all, what they are looking for. (If the client thinks the RFP is all about getting the lowest price, he is misleading himself.)
So where does this heartfelt desire to pitch come from? It is all about drive. Do your people really love what they do? In our agency, we have four main focus areas where we gather real talent. We recruit people who love the work and are experts. If they want to pitch and think they can win, we move forward. Trust the people you have hired to provide input on the decision.
2) This is our sweet spot. We've got this.
Your team should enter the process certain in the knowledge that this is their home turf -- this is where your agency can shine. Heck, you know the business better than the client. If the RFP does its job properly, it should be applying Darwinian pressures in the selection process: only the fittest agency will survive. Your agency is selected for the job because it’s the fittest, fastest, and smartest of the pack.
However, Darwinian rules of selection are easily distorted. The client’s selection board should be absolutely impartial. If there is the slightest whiff of favoritism for another agency, run a mile, and let the client know that you declined to participate for that reason.
3) We can win this without presenting creative concepts.
I’ve had the privilege of working outside of the agency world, and in no other industry that I've come in contact with would the supplier give away its premium product for free. When you decide to submit creative work to fulfill the terms of the RFP, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
The request for creative work is not only grossly unjust, it’s a high-stakes game. You are producing a creative approach without a proper brief, an audit, market insight, or an understanding of potential leverage. You’re taking all the risk, and in the process, the client only gets to see beautiful yet half-baked ideas.
It’s time for our industry to show solidarity and to unanimously decline to produce creative work to win a pitch. If we don’t stop the madness, no one will.
The account should be won on the quality of your previous work. Highlight your case studies, and show that you have defined processes. How did you chose the idea that made a measurable difference to your client’s business? What was the impact?
4) The right team is ready.
The team that pitches and wins gets to do the work. Anything else is probably dishonest. Decide before you respond to the RFP if the people who pitch the work are the ones who can actually see the project through. This way, if you win, you know that the people on the account truly understand the work and are dedicated to the client. Don't put in all the effort only to lose the account in the next nine months.
Don't Lose Focus
Only respond to an RFP if you are passionate about the work or the client. It shouldn't be because you’re desperate for work. You won't fool anyone with a lack of experience and a frantic attitude.
An RFP is an opportunity, not a distraction. It needs a team that believes in the work and will show this to the client. That's the only way you have a chance of winning.