Death by RFP? How Agencies and Clients Can Stop the Madness
The RFP process has to be one of the most loathsome processes ever perpetrated on communications firms. For the uninitiated, “RFP” stands for Request for Proposal (it goes under various guises such as Request for Qualifications, Request for Information, etc.). Companies contemplating an agency change typically send RFPs out to a bunch of firms regardless of their suitability to handle the task at hand; while some agencies decline to participate, many firms dutifully answer them. First-time buyers are the worst offenders.
Why loathsome? These things take hours to complete and are often replete with perfectly ridiculous questions such as “How many accounts has your agency won in the past five years on Tuesdays between the hours of 2:30 pm and 4:00 pm?” Of course, I exaggerate (but not by much) for effect. And, while agencies complete these idiotic things and comply with the deadlines, the potential client often fails to respond or even acknowledge receipt of the submission. My suspicion is that clients have it in for agencies as they labor under the false impression that all we in the agency business do is spend countless hours dining at the best places in town, working out at the gym, chatting with prospects and so forth (I believe the Don Draper character from the hit cable TV series “Mad Men” is partially to blame for this impression). Perhaps, the RFP process is way of striking back for some real or imagined offense.
Another particularly offensive aspect of the process is that some prospective clients will request program ideas… Aren’t we supposed to get paid for these? Would you ask an attorney you were considering retaining for free legal advice? If you want ideas, pay for them. A friend of mine who was formerly with a major accounting firm ran an agency search via the RFP process some years ago. Given that he was asking for ideas, he paid the participating agencies a token amount of money.
There is a better way… A much better way. Allow me to elaborate:
- Know Your Budget. You get a lot of tire kickers who will often answer the budget question by saying, “We want the best program possible and don’t have a budget in mind.” Once the prospective client sees the budget estimate for the “best program possible,” he or she faints. Your budget will help you determine the agency that is right for you. Sure, I’d like a Porsche; however, my budget only permits me to own a ‘97 Camry.
- Know What You Need. Some companies might feel comfortable with a specialist firm (e.g., health, financial services, investor relations, technology, etc.) while others might prefer a boutique or a generalist. Look for a firm that possesses the requisite experience, matches your needs and offers the resources that might be important to your program’s success. Most firms will offer services on an “a la carte” basis so you can choose what you need immediately and utilize other services as time and budget dictate.
- Do Some Research. There is no reason to send an RFP to every firm in town. Get recommendations from friends. Talk to people. Of course, there’s always Google (my search utilizing the phrase, “Selecting a Public Relations Firm,” yielded 51 million results in 0.49 seconds). Surely out those 51 million results, there are a few helpful hints. For comparison purposes, you might want to a narrow your search to include firms of varying sizes.
- A Personal Visit is Best. Scheduling meetings with agencies is an indication that you are sincere in your search as opposed to going on a fishing expedition. Meeting with the firm’s executives will give you a good idea about many things that typically can’t be learned from an RFP submission. I’m talking about chemistry, the human element, if you will. Most agencies will present their credentials as well as recommendations for your company. It will be easy for you to see if they’re on the mark fairly quickly. In addition, you should insist on meeting the engagement team (avoid the “bait and switch” thing whereby the best presenters are in the room for the pitch and vanish after the account is landed). Also, when you visit a firm you can pick up other cues. How are you greeted? Are you kept waiting? Are the offices unkempt? Is the place buzzing with activity? Do staffers look happy? Of course, there are many other criteria by which you should base your decision, far too many to elaborate on here.
Finally, I do recognize that many companies have to follow certain procedures in their procurement processes and an RFP may be one of them. However, if you do have to go that route, remember that somebody (or a group of somebodies) spent a lot of time completing your RFP. A simple response or acknowledgement is all that is required. And, while delivering bad news to the losers is never fun, it is the right thing to do and will reflect positively on your company.