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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In ad land, you are never more than a few steps from outdated writing materials engraved with the ancient saying, “If you want mass reach, you’ve got to use TV.”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