Agencies are all too familiar with the present day Request for Proposals (RFP) process. It is often one-sided, with the client driving it, and ultimately, acting as the sole decision maker. The process can typically become very convoluted very quickly, with multiple phases, varying complexities, and short turnaround times. By revamping that process to facilitate a mutual exchange of information, and more equally distributing the partnership decision, more satisfying outcomes on both sides of the equation would occur as a result.
Equalize the ProcessIn its current form, the RFP process is flawed and archaic. It places limitations on all parties, and is not ideally suited for realizing the best outcomes. While agencies usually welcome the thrill of the pitch, eager to showcase their talent and thinking to potential clients, the process frequently places an unusual burden on the agency. A responding agency invests resources, including talent and finances, and disrupts current client work without the ability to accurately evaluate potential risks and benefits to its business before participating. Clients issuing RFPs generally do not share all the necessary information or offer clear direction as to what they are looking for. The scope of work is also typically not disclosed, making it a challenge to assess the opportunity and to ensure that the agency's recommendations are feasible within the budget, and on target in the context of business goals.
Subsequently, clients also unnecessarily take on the risk of evaluating a long list of agencies, expending excessive amounts of time listening to presentations and reviewing proposals, only to experience frustration that no single agency really stands out. Ultimately, they may find themselves in the position of selecting an agency partner based on the one they feel "comfortable" with or are already familiar with, rather than on the agency's ideas, creativity, and strategic abilities.
In times when the "safe" agency rules the day rather than the right one, what can be done? Revamp the process and ignite enthusiasm, not ire. To get a better idea of how to handle (and not to handle) this best, let's examine some examples:
According to a July 2009 report in Adweek, when a hot e-commerce footwear company recently initiated a search for a new agency, many agencies were left frustrated and angered by the experience. While agencies complained about the "Byzantine" review process requiring excessive time, effort, and money, many still felt that it was an opportunity they could not pass up. From the 104 agency responses to the company's RFP, 22 were chosen to deliver 90-minute presentations. While advance submissions were required within a two-week turnaround time, agencies expressed disappointment that the submissions they put time, effort, and resources into were not even reviewed. By conducting advance research and approaching a narrower pool of contenders, the client would have saved both its own and the agencies' resources, as all 22 participants could not have been a perfect fit, nor is it possible to clearly differentiate from such a large group.
In another example, a global pharmaceutical company requested that a group of agencies submit capabilities prior to issuing an RFP. Once submitted and evaluated, the RFP was distributed to a smaller group of four agencies. The RFP asked the agencies to present their thinking for a global oncology product launch. Indicating that this was a major launch of critical importance to the company, the client also shared that multiple markets would be involved in the launch and an integrated strategic recommendation was sought. Presentations took place four weeks later at the company's headquarters in Europe. One agency in particular spent weeks developing its proposal and, determined to stand out among its competitors, made a financial investment in conducting global market research in five countries so that findings would better inform and support its perspective.
Additionally, several senior level staff members from three countries were co-leads in the process.
Shocking news followed suit: The team learned that its strategic thinking far exceeded the client's expectations and knocked its competitors out of the game. The client ultimately decided, however, to select another agency partner—one that provided the "nuts and bolts" as well as "turnkey" ideas that were more in alignment with its expectations and budget. The client in this case could have been more transparent with its expectations and divulged the scope of the work, allowing the agencies to tailor their approaches more appropriately.