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Frustrated with RFP's from Hell?—Stop Carping and Do Something About It!

Agency biz dev execs are telling us that the RFP process is getting out of control. So, to that extent, I have two questions:

1) What are the issues?

2) What should the agency community do about it?

Please let us know your thoughts!

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Normal RFP's and Procurement RFP's

Submitting more than 20 RFP's on average per year, we see all kinds. The ones we've been getting for years are very time- consuming but not unreasonable IF the potential client reads through every one with the same focus and attention from the first to the last. The questions give you insights into what their business problems may be and what they're lacking from their current partner(s).

The ones issued by procurement, however, are a different story. The most heinous example is one we received last year that comprised 281 questions, of which about 10 had to do with marketing and advertising. The rest were about operations and logistics. Obviously, we passed on the "opportunity".

Our conversion rate is pretty high from RFP's to the next phase (90%), but I find that the ones that lead to better clients are the ones that break from the multiple questions format and introduce more human components - like video case studies or roundtable discussions. RFP's that allow a client to see an agency's thinking in action.

I do have one significant issue - blind RFPs. What agency in its right mind would go through the trouble of filling out an RFP when they have no idea to whom it's going? That's where agencies have some power - choose not to play.

Diane Fannon
The Richards Group
Posted by Ms. Diane Fannon (Wednesday, March 18, 2009 5:12 PM)

RFP Scope and Budget. A Moving Target

One problem our Kansas City Ad Council is experiencing more frequently these days is when the Scope and budget outlined during the RFP process change considerably as the search moves along. Budgets are drying up like never before; Scopes seem to be increasing. You commit to an opportunity up-front and devote an enormous amount of time only to learn later that it wasn't worth it. Asking the right questions from the start help. But what would help even more is for every well-intended RFP to go through an intense reality check, before it reaches an agency. Dave Lubeck Bernstein-Rein.
Posted by Mr. David Lubeck (Thursday, March 19, 2009 3:25 PM)

RFP's From Hell--One Agency's Approach

One 4A member became so frustrated with out of control RFP's that they wrote a white paper that they can send to clients who are considering initiating an RFP shared their RFP white paper with AAAA members in a comment responding to Cleve Langton's Top 10 Do's and Don'ts which appears on this blog (I attended the seminar yesterday and it is always good to be reminded of what needs to be done in the midst of the chaos. I have attached a web address to a recent white paper we wrote re: RFP's,
Posted by Ms. Carey Jernigan (Thursday, February 26, 2009 4:39 PM) ....take a look at re;group's paper it's pretty good stuff
Posted by Mr. Thomas Finneran (Friday, March 20, 2009 10:03 AM)

Completely agree... AND a solution

Great points by Dave, Tom & Diane.

Dave: the recession is helping to turn good prospects into okay prospects, okay prospects into mediocre ones and mediocre ones into awful prospects. The pressures and fears on the client side are unprecedented. I like Dave's suggestion about digging as much as you can early in the process; while doing it, make sure you"re doing a culture & craziness check.

Diane: Blind RFPs are a bad idea in most cases... agreed! And to deal with procurement, I think agencies need to develop "the science of dealing with procurement" - procurement isn't going away.

My suggestion: take the fine advice from Tom, Dave, Diane, Cleve... AND BUILD YOUR "WAR" (without a review) capabilities. Few agencies have the selling skills needed to go out and get the clients they want without a review - but those skills exist and can be trained.
Posted by Mr. Stephen Boehler (Sunday, March 22, 2009 1:50 PM)

Buyers' Market

Let's face it, most agencies are not currently in a position to walk away from an even ill-conceived RFP.  We are now chasing business we would have walked away from in a minute before.
With that said, our observation is that most clients, in our mid-to-small size range, do not know how to put a good RFP together.  Many are cut and paste with redundancies and even non-sensical questions.  So from the start, the process is not a quality one.
Perhaps the communications industry should follow the lead of the college application process. leads this process with the use of something called the "Common App."  Core questions are standardized.  Most colleges accept the Common App, but also have the opportunity to require answers to supplemental questions.
There would be benefits to all:
1. Clients would not have to invent the process each time
2. Agencies would not have to take so long to prepare answers, as much would be boiler plate
3. Ethical standardization could be built into the process, such as openness with respect to budgets
Now, assuming that this is a good idea, how do we get it done?  Joint task force with the ANA???
Posted by Mr. Charles Mason (Sunday, March 22, 2009 4:31 PM)

Call me an optimist...but...

I don't see a big shift.  We've always had to approach RFP's with a keen eye.  Is this real? Is this a fit? If so, how to do we win?

Some blind RFP's have turned into gems, occasionally it comes down to simply trusting your gut.

Happy pro-active hunting beloved industry.
Posted by Ms. Donna Wiederkehr (Monday, March 23, 2009 12:01 AM)

The Hail Mary RFP

I find that our chances of getting the next round are almost non-existent if (1) we don't know why we were included in the process, (relevant experience alone is not a reason why) and (2) the client remains remote and/or anonymous. As a new business person, I try to convince my agency to walk away from that cloak and dagger nonsense. That said, though our agency is doing well, we're not insensible to the challenges other agencies are facing, and I'm not always successful in convincing our team to walk away. It's a buyers' market.
Posted by Ms. Mary Lorson (Monday, March 23, 2009 9:25 AM)

Educating Procurement People

An issue Steve touched on above I'll add to is procurement. As noted, they aren't going away. And many are fine. But others seem like they'd be more comfortable procuring 10,000 telephone poles or a freight train of iron ore as they would agency services. The point I'd make to these folk, who seem to pop up in the aforementioned "mediocre" pitches, is acquiring ad/strategic creative/media services isn't like buying a commodity. While one would like to always compare agencies in apples to apples fashion, it doesn't always work that way. True, the result of what we all wish to accomplish is the same (business success). But the people driven process of getting there is what makes agencies unique, and what makes some agencies better suited to some tasks and others to others. The problem is, procurement is much more of a left brain driven discipline, vs. the right brain driven agency world. The difference is hard for the left side to fully appreciate. When an agency gets stonewalled by procurement people (I've had some fail to respond with a simple yes or no after submitting an RFP), the agency often loses the chance to connect with the more right brain fluent marketers who are the people who should really be passing judgement in the first place.

Of course, digital does change this in many cases, as with more measures, it is more possible for a procurement person to be able to make quantitative/left brain judgements that might be truly indicative of qualitative/right brain value. But still, the nuances of factoring in agency personalities and work styles and matching those to client need will continue to challenge the procurement operation.

What can be done? Well, given there are all sorts of groups procurement people are members of, maybe the 4As can't do some outreach on how to conduct agency searches, how to compare agencies, how to conduct fair reviews that take into consideration such things as agency personality, culture and work style, etc. Perhaps have a 4As exec or a search consultant present at procurement gatherings, or author articles for targeted pubs/sites. It will take some time, but this could at least be a place to start. Eric Hyman, JWT's Communications, Entertainment & Technology Practice, Atlanta
Posted by Mr. Eric Hyman (Tuesday, March 24, 2009 4:20 PM)

I agree with Mary’s comment that it is indeed a buyer’s market when it comes to the RFP and new business in general, and certainly now more so than ever before. And to make matters worse, it’s a buyer’s market with no rules…except the rules we agencies set for ourselves. At least that seems to be the law of the land among smaller agencies such as our own. And so far I have found few new business prospects even remotely interested in hearing about our rules when it comes to pitching their account, even when we quote 4A guidelines. It’s their account, their budget, their pitch and their rules. Take it or leave it. And there’s simply no future in trying to reason with a misguided prospective client over a totally unreasonable RFP process. All that’s left to do is walk away. And unfortunately, our agency has lately been doing a lot of that. Irrational and irresponsible pitch requests may make us mad, but at least we maintain our right to just say hell no. That’s the only pitch rule we can count on.
Posted by Mr. John Sharpe (Wednesday, March 25, 2009 11:55 AM)

What are the Issues?

What are the issues?  Our industry cannot afford to continue to operate in as reactionary a way as we've been doing.  We need to stop chasing everything and start focusing on the right opportunities for strategic and sustained growth.  With the kind of revenue pressure we're facing, responding to every RFP that comes up is insane.  And, RFPs with hundreds of questions are a complete waste of our time -- and of our potential clients'.  What client (or even procurement person) would actually do anything more than skim a dozen of them?  These cattle calls do nothing to dispel the notion that advertising is a commodity.

We're caught in a vicious circle -- desperation breeds desperation. We can't make money, we can't adequately service our clients, and we can't take care of our people if we continue to work under the existing rules.

What should the agency community do about it? The only way we are going to be able to extricate ourselves from this mess is to find a better and more meaningful way to articulate what makes our agencies uniquely different.  That's really hard to convey via words on paper.  How many times have we heard that all the agencies' responses are not really differentiated?

We could make this so much simpler for ourselves and our prospective clients.  What about if each agency initially provided only a brief video to showcase our personality, our work, whatever. No rules, no restrictions -- and no customization for each prospect.  Just who we are.

What about requesting a videoconference with key people (agency and client) first as an initial screening for fit?  What about having the client articulate the five most important questions they have of the agency and vice versa? 

I'm sure you guys could all come up with more/better ideas for how agencies and clients could approach the initial introduction phase.

And, if clients really care about the number of employees in each office, the breakdown of revenue by medium, or my favorite question of all time "What process do you have to determine the root cause analysis and execute corrective actions in each of your areas of expertise?" -- we can certainly delve into those specifics after both sides decide they could work together.
Posted by Gwen Basinger (Thursday, March 26, 2009 10:36 AM)

Agency perspective on RFP's

Liz Conlin, Vice President, Client Services Director & Carey Jernigan, Director of New Business | 02.06.09

An agency guide to writing RFPs that actually work. An agency guide to writing RFPs --Selected highlights follow:

We receive numerous Request for Proposals and Quotes (RFPs and RFQs) from prospective clients. They are becoming more arduous and less helpful in telling us what they are trying to accomplish.
We vowed to tell prospective clients what it’s like to be on our side of the fence in responding to these proposals. So, here it is:
Do: Your homework!If you don’t know what you’re doing, ask. If you’ve never written an RFP or been involved in selecting a new agency/partner, talk to marketing associates and people in your network who have.

Do: Involve senior marketing management in the RFP process.
Marketing is a relationship-based business. If you expect to work closely with the prospective partner, it is important for the senior client marketing person to be involved in developing the proposal and in the selection process. .

Do: Tell us why we are receiving your RFP.
Tell us why you are sending out an RFP.

Do: Make sure the deliverables are clear.
You would be surprised at how many RFP’s we receive where we are not exactly sure what the company is looking for.

Do: Think about what you expect the agency to present creatively.However, if the revenue from your account is relatively small or the term of the project is relatively short then don’t be surprised when some agencies “decline to participate.”

If you do intend to ask for creative work and you feel this is the only way that you can make a decision about the agency, then you owe it to the participants to write a clear creative assignment and address what issues or opportunities you expect the creative work to solve.

Don’t: Be vague!!!

Do: Know it’s OK to ask for ROI and tracking metrics. But to do this we will need information about your business objectives, sales data, customer behavior, web analytics and what measurements are important to you.

Don’t: Be afraid to provide a budget. The reason agencies like to know the budget is 1) to determine if the budget is in line with the scope of work expected and 2) so that they can determine the optimum approach for the money available. So, whenever possible provide a budget even if it is approximate. Agencies will be happy to itemize how your money will be spent. Then you can decide who provides the best value.

Do: Spell out specifics.To avoid unnecessary questions it is advisable to include the following information:
--A list of agency/partner requirements and qualifications i.e. experience, case studies, requirements for the project, your staffing model so that the agency can think about how many people they will need to staff your account.
--A summary of how you will conduct the selection process- phases, key dates and list of decision-makers.
An opportunity for all participants to email questions or preferably to have a phone briefing.

And lastly, Do: Consider our advice.You will receive more thoughtful responses and accurate estimates, which will save you and your prospective partners a lot of time. It will also build the foundation for a better relationship and outcome.

Check out the link below for the complete RFP white paper
Posted by Ms. Carey Jernigan (Friday, March 27, 2009 3:42 PM)

Why the Agency RFI/RFP Process is Contrary to Marketers' Goals

The key to making changes is to convince clients that the RFP is contrary to their goals.   I wrote about this on my blog a month ago...a sample of my blog comments are provided below
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Why the Agency RFI/RFP Process is Contrary to Marketers' Goals

The time has come to consider doing away with the RFI/RFP (Request for Information/Request for Proposal) process used to select marketing agency partners, or at least we need to make it work for brands rather than against them.

The challenges with the RFI/RFP process that agencies and clients should seek to resolve include:

First and foremost, provide the right information! Most RFIs/RFPs contain only cursory information about the current situation or desired outcomes.

Give agencies time to provide the ideas that will change your brand. Agencies are often expected to develop a year or two of insightful strategies, ideas, and tactics within a matter of two to four weeks.

Ask the right questions. It seems obvious, but if you want to make the right decision, you must get the right info and this means asking the right questions.

Allow flexibility.

A link to my complete blog is provided below [feedback would be very welcome]:
Posted by Mr. August Ray (Saturday, March 28, 2009 2:17 PM)

Here Are My Thoughts

There is one question every client should ask a prospective agency, and if you're in an agency it's a question you should be able to answer. The question is this:

What are the principles by which you create advertising?

I wrote a post on this problem months ago:here is a link to the complete post:
Posted by Mr. Bob Hoffman (Saturday, March 28, 2009 5:57 PM)

7 Habits of Effective RFP Responses

The Mistakes Agencies Make, AAAA Webinar, Featured Judy Neer, Pile+Company. Judy discussed:
--The most common new business mistakes
--7 habits of highly effective RFP responses.

The recording of Judy Neer's presentation and her slides are available in the Webinar section of the 4A website
Posted by Mr. Thomas Finneran (Sunday, March 29, 2009 8:44 AM)

The RFP is a two way document

The RFP should be used as a two way screener. As much as the RFP tells marketers which agencies are potentially the best partners, it should also be used by agencies as the first insight into how the marketer will work with its agency. The RFP from hell that Diane describes should be a giant red flag. It indicates one or more of three possibilities: 1) Procurement used a standard format that is used to buy everything from toilet seats to professional services (not a good sign!) 2) No senior marketer is involved in the process ( at least you hope a senior person would be savvy / respectful enough not to let it go out) 3) agency services are treated like interchangeable parts and commodities.

Push back on offensive RFPs is the first line of defence that agencies need to take. The tighter the economic environment, the more selective agencies need to be. The smart agencies realize that since pitch budgets are reduced, they can't afford to hunt everything that moves. Put away the shotgun and take out the rifle. If the RFP smells, the pitch process generally isn't any sweeter.

Cleve Langton
Posted by Cleve Langton (Wednesday, April 01, 2009 2:34 PM)

Request for "Sample" Client Requests (RFP's)

What constitues a well crafted client request (RFP)? and What Constitutes a bad client request (Rfp)? What info should the client provide? etc 4A would welcome your thoughts and if you have illustrative client requests that you can share that illustrate best/worst elements please send them to (Please delete reference to client name and redact any CI)

Tom Finneran AAAA
Posted by Mr. Thomas Finneran (Thursday, April 09, 2009 8:42 AM)

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