Why We Don’t Do RFPs (And Why You Should Stop, Too)

by: Rob Gillan

September 21, 2019

What is an RFP?

RFPs (Requests for Proposal) are commonly used in the business world to solicit for proposals when a project is in the beginning phases. In our case, these are mainly for websites or digital advertising plans and campaigns.

A typical RFP process looks like this:

  1. Business outlines specific wants/needs in broad strokes
  2. Total project budget is identified by the business issuing the RFP
  3. Agencies submit multi-page proposals responding to the specifics in the RFP

The above sounds reasonable enough, right? Let’s dive deeper into why we don’t like the process.


For Businesses

An inefficient way to spend time?

First and foremost, both parties spend a lot of time getting very little done. While there isn’t anything wrong with the RFP-issuing business spending time thinking about their project needs, the process isn’t the most efficient use of anyone’s time. The issuing business has to spend valuable time sifting through numerous multi-page documents that are, by and large, going to say very similar things. Why? Because you, the business, have already told everyone what you want to hear. Although not a perfect analogy, most businesses wouldn’t conduct a job interview by offering the maximum salary up front and then asking the candidate to define their own role — the business doing the hiring already understands their own needs. The whole hiring process is a negotiation (and a conversation) based on the business’s specific needs and a candidate’s skill-set and experience. Important projects should be treated similarly! The business’s needs should be identified to candidates by way of engaged conversation. Think about it – conversation and communication always leads to a better understanding between all parties involved.

Secondly, this process doesn’t give the RFP issuing business an opportunity to test the responding company’s knowledge in a meaningful way until much later in the selection process. Although there can be useful information received in a proposal document, much of the time these responses are somewhat generic and are recycled from previous proposal materials. The respondents often spend time writing to the exact bullet points the issuer has laid out. If you’ve already told someone what you want to hear, then you shouldn’t be impressed when they parrot it back to you.

Thirdly (and acknowledging that this isn’t always the case), proposals from large agencies are often put together by head salespeople and/or managing partners. While these people are eager to please, many times they’re only involved in the sales phase and the work gets passed off to junior staff once a contract is signed.

Finally, why tell someone what you’re willing to pay them? Instead, find out what they can do for you and what that is going to cost. Your job is to get firms with the right skill-sets competing for your money, not salivating at how much you’re willing to spend.

While the business team issuing the RFP don’t need to be experts in the project’s domain (after all, it’s why you’re hiring an outside firm), your team likely has a well-honed bullshit meter. Take that collective business experience and interview firms in your area. Give them some sense of the project and see what they suggest – the responses and general plan should make sense to all involved. Fancy slide decks and a list of previous big-name clients can seem impressive, but the most important thing to remember is this: you’re going to be involved in a multi-week, month, or years long project. Quality of relationship and communication is paramount.


For Agencies

Time Is Precious – Use It Wisely

Responding to RFPs — it’s the job contract lottery. We’ve all been there – a business issues an RFP and you spend hours putting together a proposal that you hope gets their attention. However, you’re subject to a couple of unpleasant realities in this process.

  1. You may not get a chance to engage anyone in a real conversation, and
  2. The hiring business may have already chosen another company for the project.

Wait, what? Yep, knowing who you intend to hire before even issuing an RFP happens more than anyone wants to readily admit. A handshake and a promise behind closed doors becomes subject to “our bylaws/policies/etc. require us to put it out to tender.” Both parties involved know this is a mere formality and a foregone conclusion.

Admittedly, there are fewer downsides for the agency drafting the proposal, and this is the way it should be. As agencies, we’re the ones trying to win a customer’s business, so there is a lot of upside here and it’s incumbent upon us to effectively sell our team and our value to the client. However, spending time submitting proposals to RFPs means spending less time on client work. Less time giving your already paying customers the quality of work that they deserve. Less time continuing to hone your skills and stay on top of the ever-changing landscape that is “best practices”.

Rather than spending time writing a long, comprehensive document, work on getting in front of clients and explaining your value to them. A great agency, no matter the size, should be able to convey to a client the benefits of working with them.


A Better Way To Do Business

At Red Ear Media, we focus on sitting down with and engaging with our clients, both current and prospective. We believe that clear, honest, and open communication will help yield relationships that are mutually beneficial for years to come. If you’d like to find out more about what we do and to see if we can help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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