Believe it or not, I once enjoyed completing RFPs. There was something accomplishment-oriented — almost like making checkmarks on a list — about pulling all the right information and submitting it in the exacting detail that the prospective client requested. It was exciting to know the other agencies were pulling all their information together, too, and that in a few short weeks, we might pass each other upon arriving or leaving the pitch.

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Those days of eager-beaver new business pursuits are over, at least for me. Maybe it was the three-question RFP format that always turned into 27-plus pages of content or the pesky typo that showed up long after submission. Maybe it was the apparent apples-to-apples comparison that became something more along the lines of apples to asparagus. Or maybe it was the head scratching over spec creative — to include or not. And all of this happened right up until the 4:00 p.m. CST deadline where you had to deliver seven black-and-white, double-sided hard copies that needed to arrive not a minute late at some obscure office on the other side of the metro.

When I started my agency, well-intended prospects and referral sources started sending me RFPs. In the first year, we completed several RFPs and won none of these. On the positive side, the RFPs helped us get down our narrative and compile our campaign recaps. On the negative side, these took an inordinate amount of time away from billable work and more targeted business development.

Even though the RFP senders might invite questions from the participating agencies, the responses that the prospects provided were often vague, and the organizations seemed standoffish about actually having rapport or developing a relationship. In other words, they were not open to getting acquainted. It was a shame, because that’s how agency-client relationships are formed.

I’ve come to believe that RFPs are fruitless. Clients have the potential to get good work from any agency they choose. We wouldn’t remain in business if we couldn’t successfully and creatively provide the strategies and tactics of our profession. The real criteria for selecting an agency should be relationship-based, and that’s nearly impossible to assess in an RFP submission.

From RFP to the presentation, these arms-length pursuits and the decisions are dizzying — everything from “we decided to go a different direction” to “we really liked your ideas, but felt XYZ agency was a better fit” and many other non-specific explanations, that is, if they even extended the courtesy of letting the non-winning agencies know. It almost always seemed like the decision came from some undeclared criteria — something that came to the client midway through the RFP process, but they didn’t realize they should share.

Bottom line for agencies: It’s far more important to qualify your prospects and maximize your proposals. In meeting with a lead the other day, I complimented her on sitting down over coffee to talk about her company’s needs and interests while getting to know my firm’s potential approach. I further commented that I hoped she was not planning to issue an RFP. Of course she asked why, and I explained the following:

  • RFPs create an artificial vetting system that focuses on minutia instead of substance.
  • RFPs are time consuming for clients to create, for agencies to complete and for clients to review.
  • RFPs are a “cattle call” that often have the best agencies declining to participate.
  • RFPs rarely function as objectively as intended or they do the exact opposite and preclude any subjectivity that permits the prospect from simply saying, “I like that agency best, but they didn’t score the highest on our criteria sheet.”

In chatting with many other agency principals, I’ve heard similar lamentations about RFPs. Some agencies say, “We gave up on RFPs. We only participate in rare situations. Only for a truly coveted account — one with a great potential for creative, supported by the management team and with a substantial budget.” The general sentiment is RFPs are a dicey proposition.

As an industry we need to educate the prospective client community on how to get acquainted with and hire agencies. It would serve us all in finding mutually beneficial matches, so we could get on with providing our talents and services to meet client needs. Sure, prospects need to vet us, and yes, agencies need to provide credentials and examples as well as intriguing ideas, but let’s put RFPs to rest as the mechanism to do so.

I am ready to relegate RFPs to the bottom of our new business list. Will other agencies join me? If so, perhaps we can declare it’s time for RFPs to R.I.P.

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Originally published Nov 19, 2013 12:00:43 AM, updated September 11 2019

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