The Unspoken Evil Of The RFP

The RFP must die.

Or at least the way the process has evolved in today’s marketing world should. On the surface, it seems innocuous. A company or organization issues an request for proposal (sometimes masked as a ‘request for quote’) to several agencies, consultants for firms. They sometimes include ridiculous assignments jammed into even more ridiculous time frames and even sometimes have the audacity for the responder to commence work on creative concepts and ideas that solve the prospective client’s communications problem.

Then the company collects the RFPs, steals the ideas and doesn’t even change the account from the agency they were working with.

The frustration of the RFP process
If you work in advertising and this hasn’t happened to you, how’s day three on the job?

RFPs from government agencies have spiraled out of control to a level that’s beyond even discussing. I recently received an RFP from a government agency that was 58 pages in length and somewhere along page 29 mentioned they wanted ideas to activate around (and I quote), “so-called social media.”

While I resisted the urge to reply to the contact person with a loud and swift, “Go to hell,” I didn’t respond.

The Problem With RFPs
Agencies want new business. Clients know this and have learned over the years that agencies will jump through crazy hoops to get it. Clients want fresh ideas. Agencies know this and will sometimes undercut their own value by sharing some of those in an RFP or pitch for new business. Clients have learned over the years that there are more agencies in need of new business than there are great ideas, so they use the imbalance to their advantage.

The majority of RFPs, in fact all but one that I’ve ever seen, require creative concepts in order for the agency to be in consideration. The one that I saw that didn’t, I wrote for a client.

This is nothing short of extortion. Especially when the RFP stipulates (which it normally does, or the agency is dumb enough to) the ideas are transferred and owned by the client regardless of the agency’s win or loss of the business.

So clients take advantage of agencies. Agencies know if they don’t adhere to the idea giveaway, their competition gladly will, so they have little choice but to participate.

The brand is to blame for asking for work without pay. The agency is to blame for giving away work without demanding compensation.

But neither side is likely to take the high road on the ethical side of things, so we have ourselves a Catch 22.

The Only Hope
All that an agency can hope for is market share or diversification of revenue that is so overwhelming they don’t need the new business bad enough.

In early 2009, while still working with Doe-Anderson, a great full-service advertising agency in Louisville, I had the task of putting together a digital marketing dream team of partners for a major brand. I hand-picked several of the top boutique firms specializing in social media, email marketing, search engine optimization, mobile marketing and design and called them each to talk about participating in my little RFP process. I clarified that I would not ask for their creative work, that I only wanted to hear how they would approach solving the communications problem at hand and how they would fit in with a large, multiple-agency team to work on behalf of the client. From that information, I would ask them each several questions and then choose the firm in each category I felt was the best fit for our needs.

When I called one of the companies I was told, “I’m sorry, we don’t respond to RFPs.”

Half of me screamed, “WHAT? DO YOU KNOW WHICH BRAND YOU’RE PASSING ON?” And the other half screamed, “GOT ANY OPENINGS?!”

It turns out that particular firm had developed several products around its niche and had the advantageous position to only work with companies they wanted to work with. They told me they don’t respond to RFPs because if the client in question wants the best in the business, they don’t need to compare and contrast, they just hire them. They only wanted to work with people who wanted to work with them. Period.

On one hand, it reeks of arrogance. Here’s hoping they never fall off that pedestal and need clients. On the other hand, it’s where I would want my agency or consultancy to be and I admire the hell of them for taking that stand.

If only everyone did.

The Solution
Like any long-standing, traditional process that has morphed into a problem (i.e. – health care, government bureaucracy, doctor’s visits) there’s no one solution to the RFP problem. It will take a combination of a lot of things to fix:

• Companies and brands need to recognize that creative concepts are an agency’s bread and butter and shouldn’t be asked for without compensation
• Agencies need to place a better value on their work and either ask for compensation, ownership or refuse to provide creative concepts
• Agencies that undercut competitors by violating that stance should be penalized somehow

Will any of that happen? Probably not. Ad agency and PR firm creative concepts aren’t exactly earth-shattering utilities that need some sort of regulation.

But sooner or later agencies are going to realize the cost-benefit of the dog-and-pony show isn’t in their favor and stop responding. If you think the current state of marketing is bad now, just wait until the crappy firms get all the business.

In that scenario, everyone loses.