By Kirk Cheyfitz published April 2, 2015

6 New Reasons to Kill the RFP: Find Innovators, Not Commodities


Of all the vestiges of old school, traditional ad land, none is as stifling as the request for proposal process. If brands want agencies to look to the future and innovate, they’ll need to stop treating agency selection like a vendor-procurement process.

If the ad industry were a national park, it would easily qualify for the coveted designation of a fossil-rich area; paleontologists would flood the place. Evidence of the distant past is everywhere in ad land, close to the surface, littering the landscape.

In ad land, you are never more than a few steps from outdated writing materials engraved with the ancient saying, “If you want mass reach, you’ve got to use TV.” Here too are preserved quaint social practices such as posting on Facebook solely to make product claims. But while fossils like these are pretty routine finds, no ad land fossil is quite as ubiquitous, ancient, or useless as the RFP.

First off, let’s all admit we hate and mistrust RFPs. On the brand side, Joe Chernov, the pioneering marketer and blogger who heads content marketing for HubSpot, says, “If I hire an agency, it’s never through an RFP.” And when asked about responding to RFPs, Paul Roetzer, founder and CEO of data-driven digital agency PR 20/20, says, “Never have. Never will.”

Using the qualifier “never” puts these guys at the extreme of the opinion range, but the extreme is not so far from the mainstream these days. Story, the integrated content advertising agency I help lead, is responding to fewer and fewer RFPs. We see the vast majority of them as a total waste of time. Like us, more and more agencies say they’re participating in an RFP process “rarely” or “only when there’s already a relationship.”

RFPs are so wrong in so many well-known ways that it’s not very enlightening to make a list. (If you want detailed reasons, read Forbes’ “Why the RFP is a waste of time,” by advertising search consultant Avi Dan.) But let me suggest a few less-common objections:

  1. First off, it seems a little like the old definition of insanity: Brands today are issuing RFPs to replace an agency they found less than three years earlier with the same RFP. Think about that.
  2. Brands are not hiring agencies to create perfect RFP responses that dazzle the brand managers. Rather, brands (should) want to hire an agency that will create unique communications that dazzle audiences. So, judging an agency by its ability to fill out an RFP is testing for the wrong talent.
  3. In RFPs, the brand asks all the questions. To create great content, the agency needs to ask the brilliant questions. RFPs provide little or no room for agencies to break open the discussion and show how they think.
  4. Mostly, RFPs ask the usual questions and the usual suspects respond with the usual answers. This is not exactly a recipe for finding revolutionary, out-of-the-box thinkers or thinking. Or for finding people with whom you can work.
  5. RFPs may have made sense in a less connected time when investigating a range of agencies and seeing their work was really difficult. But the whole silly process has no place in an era when a brand can search easily for any kind of agency, identify work and processes the brand’s marketers admire, and shoot those agencies a LinkedIn message asking for a meeting.
  6. Since the best, most innovative agencies increasingly are not responding to RFPs, the process is becoming a less and less likely way to find innovators.

The fact that governments are the worst and most persistent users of RFPs should be enough to teach businesses to stop doing it. Last spring, for example, the New Jersey Lottery’s private operator, Northstar, directed a 73-page RFP to “any interested firm” – not exactly a well-thought-out selection of agencies. The “advertising goals” were equally enlightening – sell more and tell people that gambling pays for education and helps people. The RFP then dictated a strategy instead of asking for one. And so on. This approach may explain the lottery’s lackluster and undifferentiating tagline, Give Your Dreams a Chance, and its even more lackluster financial performance. The lottery missed its revenue goal by $24 million for the year ended June 30, 2014, according to Bloomberg.

The final – and perhaps the most wrong-headed – thing about RFPs is they continue to indulge in the quaint 20th century practice of categorizing agencies into rigid silos. They aim to recruit a traditional ad agency or a so-called social agency (as if social wasn’t digital) or a digital agency (as if there were such a thing as a good agency that doesn’t specialize in digital, now the world’s No. 1 medium) or a content agency and so on and on and on. In other words, RFPs continue to cop the attitude that the client or the consultant knows exactly what the problem is, knows precisely how to solve it, and therefore knows what siloed marketing practice can solve it.

This kind of thinking is terrible for clients because today’s challenges are integrated and new, not siloed and old. It’s also bad, of course, for every good, thoughtful, effective agency because the real reason to pay an agency is to get solutions the clients would never have dreamed of on their own. But RFP thinking is especially hostile to content-focused agencies that have seriously non-traditional, non-siloed, multi-channel ways of solving the new communications challenges posed by the digital-first, social-always media landscape.

As the legal brief writers might put it, for these other good and valid reasons, the sufficiency of which has been acknowledged by all parties, we hereby urge all clients and all agencies to cease and desist from the mindless process of RFPs forthwith. Instead, agencies and clients both need to do a little research and then approach the outfits with which they’d most like to work. That approach works for everyone because it has the power to produce surprising results, which is a whole lot better than all the unsurprising stuff that’s been produced by doing things the old way.

Do you participate in RFPs? The agency perspective

John Mustin, Founder, Wasabi Rabbit

The short answer is “yes, we participate in RFPs” … that is, I haven’t categorically ruled out responding to the perfect RFP. But over the last 10 years, I’ve become ruthlessly discriminating in my determination of which ones we will pursue. Gone are the days where I’d pour hundreds of hours into strategy, spec work and polishing presentation materials in pursuit of RFIs and RFPs, particularly when what we’re responding to doesn’t let us to communicate our strengths and differentiators effectively.

Paul Roetzer, Founder, PR 20/20

Never have. Never will.

Doug Kessler, Founder, Velocity Partners

We rarely participate in agency-search RFPs. We’re against spec pitches but might respond to a request for information about Velocity. Our process depends on a lot of pretty intensive input. Pitches that ask for our ideas based on very little information are unlikely to generate great work. And they take a lot of time and effort that our current clients are essentially paying for.

Todd Wheatland, Global Head of Strategy, King Content

I’ll go against the grain and say I think the market’s changing on this. When I was a CMO with a large company, I would never use an RFP process to bring on a content marketing supplier. Now I’m on the agency side, we experience the same approach from the clients we work with, and virtually never respond to initial RFPs.

However, because of our unique business model, where we are increasingly dealing with the same organizations in maybe dozens of countries – the scale and complexity of what we are doing increase, and eventually procurement starts to take a sharper interest. We’re seeing this in all regions now that content marketing has become a much larger component of corporate spend, which means procurement is bringing it under its remit and subjecting agencies to the same processes as other marketing activities.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly, print magazine.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Kirk Cheyfitz

Kirk Cheyfitz is an award-winning journalist, author, editor, publisher and innovator in nontraditional advertising, marketing and content creation. He is also the CEO and chief editorial officer of Story Worldwide, the full-service, global ad agency he co-founded and runs.

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  • John Bottom

    Great article Kirk – and a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. I think we should remember who is behind the RFP, however. Frequently it is not the brand manager or the marketing director, but those lovely people in procurement. In their defence (and I’m just trying to be even handed here) they need a framework to judge suppliers because they are not expert enough to evaluate accurately otherwise. And why should they be? These are the same people who are simultaneously helping a fleet manager buy 200 BMWs, deciding which photocopiers the company should use, and managing the appointment of a cleaning company. The problem is that larger companies are hard-wired into believing that procurement’s role is a valuable one. And so it persists. I’m sure many client-side marketers would love to get rid of the RFP – and all the other mandatory processes they could do without – and judge agencies by fairer means.

    • Kirk Cheyfitz

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, John. I know you are right. I also think we both recognize that while procurement should ensure that the client is not overpaying, they generally should have little or no role in determining who’s “best” to do the work. In the perfect world that I imagine, procurement looks at the 2-3 agencies the brand’s marketers love the most and helps to compare costs and benefits. Then procurement says, “These two work for us.” And the marketing folks take their pick. But no one should tolerate a procurement process that reaches out to 20 agencies with rote questions and is unable to distinguish meaningfully among them.

  • Nicole Sharp

    As one who barely squeezes in as a true “millennial,” I can appreciate both sides of this coin. With everyday business operation we stagger the lines of innovating and
    being respectful of processes that have been in place (i.e. the infamous RFP
    process). We continually look to build our case for innovation whenever and wherever possible. As the Director of Marketing for a mid-size Professional Employer
    Organization (PEO), UniqueHR – about 8 months ago I set out on quest to find THE
    premiere Enterprise Digital Marketing agency to partner with. One who could share in my vision to build out an end-to-end ecosystem (website, social, SEO, email, content, video, etc.) that encompasses all of the critical areas of online marketing. I found that and so much more with my team at TechShepherd. They are a true extension of my corporate marketing department here in Texas and they are in Florida for crying out loud! I thank my lucky stars for them each and every day.

    That all being said, they ultimately won our business not only because they are the
    absolute BEST at what they do, but because they were able to leverage “our RFP
    process” to bust the conversation wide open. (I should mention that I did
    extensive research and only approached the agencies we’d most like to work

    So I’ll play devil’s advocate here… maybe, just maybe an RFP isn’t that at all. Perhaps it’s your chance to demonstrate your ability (upfront) to go above and beyond to accommodate a client request. How much do you want the business?

    We are now engaged in a long-term retainer with TechShepherd. And we will launch later this month.

    • Kirk Cheyfitz

      Nicole, I think the fact that you put your RFP out only to agencies you really like is a demonstration that it wasn’t too closely allied to the mass, mindless cattle calls that I rail against. Then you actually seem to ask open-ended questions that invite the respondents to define or re-define the conversation. And that puts you completely outside classic RFP territory. Even I would respond to an RFP like that.

      • Nicole Sharp

        I did a lot of upfront research yes – but I didn’t “know” any of the
        organizations I was considering. (This was my way of meeting our current RFP processes in the middle). I absolutely agree with you that the “mass, mindless cattle calls” are in most cases counter-productive. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, please don’t mistake that.

        In my particular case, I was sensitive to consider the individuals who’ve successfully run our organization for almost 4 decades, “their RFP process,” and their need for a thorough comparison before making such a large investment of resources. Interestingly
        enough, I had 1-2 agencies that were at the top of my list that chose not to participate – totally their prerogative. Perhaps they “thought” it was a mindless cattle call… And maybe my situation is the exception and not the rule. I was simply making a point that agencies shouldn’t blindly discount opportunity based on the fact. I know we landed with the right long-term partner though. I feel very fortunate… no matter how we got here.

  • Jamie Turner

    Wonderful post, Kirk. You summarized everything perfectly. As an agency owner, we avoid RFPs whenever possible for the reasons stated in your post.

    My favorite line you wrote was this, “The fact that governments are the worst and most persistent users of RFPs should be enough to teach businesses to stop doing it.”

    So true!

    Thanks for sharing

    • Kirk Cheyfitz

      Thanks, Jamie!

  • aboer

    Totally. The two things that frustrate me the most about the content marketing business are 1) RFP’s, when content is anything but a commodity and
    2) The related belief that scale is a *positive* competitive differentiator. Brands and agencies are preoccupied with scale when they are only trying to create a few posts a week. How big is your contributor network, asked every procurement person ever.
    Not, “who could you bring me with an appropriate background who is a leader in the field?” Scale is really not an issue compared to reach or quality, but we get that question all the time.

    • Kirk Cheyfitz

      I agree, there are a lot of wrong questions being asked.

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  • Flynt Johnson

    Bashing RFPs is easy, but they can be a great tool if used correctly. Looking over the past year and a half, all but two of our best clients started the discussion with an RFP – the thing they had in common was they were all limited to a short list of agencies and focused on goals, not proscribing solutions.

    Now, for every RFP we respond to, we decline 3-4, but that’s another question.

  • Steven Stark

    That willingness to please the client 100% and work for little or no money defines the relationship you’ll have, and frankly, that’s not the relationship you want. Thanks for speaking up Kirk.

    • Kirk Cheyfitz

      Thanks for your response, Steven.

  • Forward Push

    We recently received an RFP and when I asked the client how many agencies received the RFP, their answer was 40+ agencies. Needless to say we didn’t participate.

  • Chris Norris

    Great article on a topic that so many of us have had the “opportunity” to experience. Ultimately I would love to see a company RFP themselves before they submit a formal RFP. Yes they have needs both operationaly and from a marketing/advertising perspective but what questions are they really concerned about having answered prior to engaging in the RFP process?

    Unfortunately RFPs often turn into timeline, process and headcount discussions which is where much of the frustration comes into play. Great work and imaginagtion is put into pitches and at the end of the process the critical answers the client is wanting has little to do with the strategy, creative expertise or indutry leading experience but rather
    how fast, how cheap and how often.

  • jessicajobes

    Great article. I spent 13 years at Microsoft and no doubt, there were some dysfunctional processes and wasted work, but working at an agency I have to say, RFP’s win hands down! There’s so much wasted energy. And worst of all, agencies allow it to continue. I started a Facebook group to tackle this issue, if you’re willing please jump over and check it out.