Defining Moments in Agency History | Birth of the RFP

Read this new article series on the history of advertising agencies from Marsha Appel, SVP Research Services, [email protected]. Don’t miss other Defining Moments in Agency History. Let us know what you think!


You’re sitting there, filling out what feels like your hundredth new business questionnaire this year, and thinking that RFPs (request for proposals) are just a necessary fact of agency business life—always was, always will be. Well, I can’t speak for the future, but I can tell you that they are a more recent phenomenon than you ever suspected.

In the course of doing research for the accuracy-obsessed “Mad Men” TV show, I ran into the origins of the agency selection questionnaire, which dates back only to the early 1960s. In the February 12, 1962 article, “Quiz helps Mohawk Airlines pare list of contenders to two,” Advertising Age marvels that Mohawk was using a questionnaire to select a new advertising agency. The publication was so intrigued with this innovative practice that they presented an enumerated list of all 18 questions in the article.

A month later, “Quiz helped Ocean Spray Cut Agency Field to 12” spelled out the 20 questions used in that case. It is interesting to note that adoption of the practice was not immediate, as evidenced by a similar article six years later, when Advertising Age published the 22 questions from a two-page questionnaire sent to agencies by Simplicity Pattern Co.

Also in 1968, Industrial Marketing had a feature article for marketers on how to design a questionnaire to get ‘useful qualitative data’…“if you’re going to use the questionnaire approach.”

How did advertisers choose agencies before 1960? By recommendations and by networking over golf and drinks at country clubs, of course.