Selecting an Advertising Agency? Scrap the Formal RFP Process

Brandon Grosvenor wrote this on Oct 03, 2018 | 0 comments

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8 Reasons Why the RFP Process Does Not Belong in the Marketing World

Still haven’t found the agency partner you’re looking for? It might be because your bid process is broken.

The debate about whether organizations should continue to use the request for proposal (RFP) process to find new marketing partners continues to percolate. Many marketing agencies have taken a strong stance against RFPs, finding them to be poorly suited to the world of marketing strategy. And on the client side, organizations are discovering that no matter how comprehensive they make their traditional, tried-and-true RFP bid documents, the resulting hires don’t deliver the type of strategy or engagement they had been hoping for.

The result? Disappointment and a sense of missed opportunity on both sides. The question is, is it because of the marketers or the clients? In all honesty, it’s neither; it’s the process itself. In many ways, the negative sentiment and outcomes surrounding RFPs have become too glaring to ignore.

Use the Right Tool For the Job

Like a fisherman weighting his hook with the wrong bait, putting out an RFP to generate applications for marketing support isn’t the right tactic to help an organization find the best-matched or best-qualified candidates. Instead, RFPs tend to attract an ill-equipped pool of applicants poised produce poor work – not because they aren’t professionals and aren’t skilled, but often because the RFP process itself is faulty and lacks specificity.

Organizations looking to attract an agency that will promote their brand in new and unforgettable ways should consider casting aside their old proposal template in favour of a more targeted approach – one that’s customized for the nature of the work.

Brand Grow Media believes strongly in an alternate process, which might include live meetings and on-site visits that provide organizations with an abundant collection of qualified prospects armed with the information they need to build truly effective campaigns.

An Outmoded Methodology

RFPs are used successfully in non-profit and government procurement of products and trades, and in those situations, it’s a tried and true process. But, even though posting RFPs has been used for decades in marketing services, there are numerous reasons why it’s broken and why it may prevent an agency from generating their best work. For example, RFPs often obscure the client’s goals, assign disproportionate weight to what should really be low-priority criteria and fail to account for the areas that allow a firm to determine whether a marketing partner is the right fit.

At the same time, the outmoded methodology of the RFP process continues to distort and devalue the work that creative agencies do – making RFPs not just a hassle, but a potentially damaging process that many talented practitioners have publicly spoken out against.

What does all of this mean?

Without making changes to the process, organizations could be cutting themselves off from a pipeline of the newest, freshest talent out there – all thanks to a single, outdated document.

What’s Wrong With RFPs?

1) RFPs ask for the wrong information

In the case of RFPs, what works in the world of engineering or procurement just doesn’t translate to the world of marketing.

Typical RFP questions often focus solely on compliance (including credentials, professional memberships, number of years of experience and volume of work produced) rather than evaluating the quality of work, customized ideas for the task at hand, or past performances that have led to exceptional results.

The RFP process often doesn’t leave any room for deep discovery of a marketing firm’s native environment, qualifications, processes and fit for the job; yet, these differentiators almost always help determine the successful outcome of a project.

2) RFPs reward the wrong type of effort

RFP applicants often find that the questions asked during the process are rote and overly cumbersome, without proper attention given to the marketing-specific difference-makers that matter most.

Commonly, small- and mid-sized agencies simply cannot spare the resources to commit hours of staff time to complete a lengthy, many-paged response, often abandoning an RFP mid-way or avoiding it altogether. Even when faced with an enticing contract, a firm with a limited budget will reluctantly recognize that the value of a potential win just can’t compete when compared to allocating those resources to a paying client.

Instead, the applicants that cross the finish line are rewarded for their stamina and ability to devote resources to RFP paperwork, ultimately making it into the pool because they were able to finish while other, similarly qualified teams were eliminated before they even began.

Also, the RFP is often used as a blunt instrument on a project looking for a laundry list of capabilities; favouring applicants who are able to confirm that they do everything (though probably not all well). At the same time, it downplays those who offer two or three exceptionally polished niches that might truly hold the key to capturing your organization’s key markets.

3) RFPs target the wrong pool of candidates

Many experienced industry observers suggest that, in general, if you are paying less than $1 million dollars for a campaign, then your needs would most likely be best served by a medium-sized or boutique agency. This is the spot where marketers are able to give considerable personalized support at that price point.

But, because of the resource and time restraints faced by mid-sized marketing firms, the only candidates who can afford to complete an RFP are most often full-scale, large firms. Without question, large firms do provide good service, but they may not be able to offer the unique time- and labour-intensive treatment required. The RFP process skews towards pulling in big players when organizations might benefit from working with smaller ones.

4) RFPs alienate the right type of candidates

An organization’s team, audience, goals and the way it speaks with end-users or customers is a crucial part of how marketers make a campaign work. That research allows agencies to create pieces that sound like they came directly from a specific organization and therefore have a better chance of winning over the hearts of audiences.

Because the RFP process denies this pre-project knowledge-gathering, a marketing team can only guess at the type of customized and innovative deliverables needed. This means the type of team that could really make an organization shine are reluctant to pitch. Many prospective candidates will remove themselves from the running rather than run the risk of putting forward sub-par or poorly researched work.

5) RFPs can devalue the creative industry

There are many cases where RFPs are required either by policy or historic practice, but from the outset the process is disingenuous. In such cases the organization already knows it wants to stick with the incumbent, but, it releases an RFP anyway because it wants to demonstrate due diligence – proving that it has collected pricing and comparable services from competitors, all the while quietly looking for ways to justify keeping their current contractor.

For agencies that complete an RFP bid under those circumstances – and aren’t the chosen winner – this type of exercise is expensive, wasteful and demoralizing. The rejection amongst losing applicants can be especially acute considering that (as is frequently the case) follow-up notes and post-mortems from the evaluator are rarely offered. If they are, they are usually politically correct, vague and non-actionable. In these cases, where candidates aren’t told where they fell down, or how they were deficient, they’re robbed of the opportunity to learn from the experience.

6) RFPs put vetting into the wrong hands

Marketing-based RFPs are often written and evaluated by project managers who have zero marketing background. These point people do not have insight as to what components are crucial to the success of a marketing plan or a media buy; yet, they’re the ones authoring – and later judging responses to – qualification questions and criteria. Because the project management world is so different from the creative development world, there is a serious disconnect between the questions that are actually asked and the ones that should be included.

7) In the creative world, RFPs are hopelessly old school

To get a sense of the old world thinking that surrounds an RFP, one need look no further than the red tape that accompanies it. The requirements for multiple hard copies of hundred-plus page documents delivered by physical mail signifies a different way of doing business than many of us favour in the modern world.

Twenty years ago, projects were tackled in complete, discrete chunks of time, requiring long and detailed processes for changes, updates and improvements. But today, software is pushed out the minute it is good enough to be used by the public, and from there, improvements are made using an agile model – frequently, quickly, and based on user feedback. Today’s is a fast, flexible and digital marketplace where long lead times lead to competitor shutouts and lost opportunities.

RFPs are a product of the old world, where time wasn’t the difference-maker between success and failure. Yet, modern marketing models are built on continuous improvement. A project could require quick changes and adjustments made with a single click.  It’s difficult, and perhaps counterintuitive, to express that philosophy using an outmoded RFP. And, this process could indeed put an organization behind its competitors simply because it takes too long to reach fulfillment.

8) RFPs could damage your brand

When you dangle the wrong tool highlighting the wrong priorities, you’re going to attract the wrong types of firms. And this could leave your organization vulnerable to receiving the wrong type of marketing plan for your goals or brand.

If you don’t empower your candidates with the right process – such as in-person meet-and-greets, a visit to your space, and/or evaluation of the criteria that truly differentiates them and allows them to demonstrate their expertise – then you are tying their hands. The marketing teams that apply might come up with ideas or scopes that don’t fit what you are looking for, don’t match your brand or dilute your key messages or values. This might alienate your audiences, lead to poor results, and generate disappointment for both you and the contractor.

What to do instead?

The next time you are launching a marketing project set your prospective contractors up for success. Let them help you bring your organization to life in the eyes of your customers. Abandon the RFP. Instead, look for agencies like Brand Grow Media who value collaboration and creativity over processes and form completion. Instead of antiquated, traditional practices that may leave you dissatisfied, consider an on-site invitation, discovery Q&A and follow-up pitch presentation as primary tools in your search for a marketing partner. You may be surprised by the rich, innovative ideas that come from changing things up.


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