Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why the Agency RFI/RFP Process is Contrary to Marketers' Goals

The time has come to consider doing away with the RFI/RFP (Request for Information/Request for Proposal) process used to select marketing agency partners, or at least we need to make it work for brands rather than against them.

Full disclosure: I work at an interactive agency, and there are a lot of selfish reasons for agencies to hate RFI/RFP processes. For example, they're time consuming (and hence expensive) and many companies lay claim to ownership of the ideas that come out of the RFP process even when agencies are not paid to participate. Also, despite the appearance of objectivity, most are rife with personal preferences and subjective decisions.

I should hasten to say that not all RFI/RFP processes are created equally. We're currently pursuing work through an RFP process that is being managed in a smart way and as a result, I believe the company and brand will succeed, no matter what they decide. We also were recently part of one of the most frustrating RFI processes of my career.

It is our experience with the good and the bad of RFIs and RFPs that gives rise to my belief that many hinder rather than help effective agency selection. Fair or not, I blame the involvement of procurement specialists, who seem to believe that great marketing services can be evaluated in the same way a company assesses paper or computers vendors. Procurement processes emphasize sameness and low cost, which may be great when purchasing 100,000 #2 pencils but seems a poor priority for vital strategic services that will affect how consumers think and act with respect to the brand.

The challenges with the RFI/RFP process that agencies and clients should seek to resolve include:
  • First and foremost, provide the right information! In marketing, we have a serious disconnect between our actions and our talk. So much ink (in both a physical and digital sense) is dedicated to the importance of results, analytics, measurement, and Marketing ROI. These things come only when professionals act based on a careful and thorough understanding of the target audience's needs, beliefs, and habits; the competition; the brand’s current and desired positioning with consumers; and the desired outcomes.

    But most RFIs/RFPs contain only cursory information about the current situation or desired outcomes. As a result, the ideas presented are too often cobbled together based on past experience (possibly dated), work done for other brands (possibly not relevant), cursory research (rarely specific and thorough) or worse yet assumption and speculation.

    We all know the concept of "garbage in, garbage out." Keeping this in mind, RFIs and RFPs should be veritable cornucopias of information. Marketers should overwhelm their agency candidates with so much information, data, knowledge, and expectations that the onus for responders is not to fill in the blanks but to demonstrate how completely the agency understands the brand and how effectively it will be activated to real, flesh-and-blood consumers.
  • Give agencies time to provide the ideas that will change your brand. Sketchy information puts agencies (and brands) at a disadvantage; to add insult to injury, agencies are often expected to develop a year or two of insightful strategies, ideas, and tactics within a matter of two to four weeks.

    We all know time is of the essence in business, but when the time frame for agency response is compressed, what is measured? Is it the value and effectiveness of the ideas and the thoroughness of the agency's understanding of the brand and its audience? Or is it the agency's ability to re-purpose past ideas and make them sound fresh? Or, maybe it really tests the staffing model of the agency--some agencies charge a higher hourly rate and then keep a team employed who are great at responding (but the prospect may never see these people again once the prospect becomes a client).
  • Ask the right questions. It seems obvious, but if you want to make the right decision, you must get the right info and this means asking the right questions.

    Rather than speaking theoretically, I'm going to share some real information from the aforementioned RFI. The document started by stating, "It is expected that the awarded vendor would become a strategic partner and could potential [sic] grow as additional brand opportunities may arise." The questions they asked included: "How does your company design websites?" "Do you utilitize [sic] software?" "What design software do you utilize? (Include version numbers if known.)" "Which graphic formats are you able to support?" "Does your firm utilize pre-purchase templates?" "Do you utilize lossless compression for files?" "What is your typical sample turnaround time for new designs?"

    It is hard for me to understand how software version numbers, file formats, or compression techniques would allow a national brand to select an appropriate strategic partner. And trying to figure out how to answer a generic question like "how quickly can you turn around new designs?" becomes an exercise in figuring out what the client wants to hear rather than furnishing truth, accuracy, and insight.
  • Allow flexibility. Organization don't hire CMOs by asking only yes/no questions, nor do they make important hiring decisions based on data submitted on spreadsheets that limit candidates' ability to convey experience, knowledge, and nuance. So why is it that agencies hired to deliver marketing results are chosen in this manner?

    An alarming trend in recent years is for third-party procurement specialists to severely define and limit the ways in which agencies can respond to RFIs. This practice gives the illusion of objectivity since every agency must answer the same questions in the same ways, but spreadsheets seem a poor way to find strategy, ideas, and partnership, don't they?

    Another example from our recent RFI may help to make the point. The question asked was, "Can you provide Doorway pages?" Any interactive agency can provide a doorway page, but the important question here is should they? Doorway pages are a relatively discredited tactic for improving SEO results, and they should only be utilized in careful ways that provide real value to the consumers who arrive via search engines. The specific RFI in this instance allowed only for a yes/no answer, so our agency lost the opportunity to furnish our experience and knowledge and the client lost the chance to understand whether their candidate agencies understood the latest and best practices for SEO. No one won as a result of the inflexible RFI format.
RFI and RFP processes have other pitfalls and issues, but the most significant problems could be solved if brand marketers furnished a great deal of information, allowed appropriate time for agency consideration and response, asked only the questions needed to assess the desired strategic services, and permitted agencies the flexibility to respond in the best and most thorough format possible.

Think of it this way: when you purchase a ream of paper at your local office products store, what's your evaluation process? You want a given weight and color at the cheapest price and your goal is to make a decision with a minimum of time. The same is true when organizations procure paper by the palette--information is objective and quickly assessed, and price is the prime (and perhaps only) decision factor.

But what about when you have a disease? How do you evaluate competing medical specialists? Is your approach to give them little information about your symptoms, demand a response in a short period of time, ask about their favorite music or the car they drive, and require all answers be submitted via spreadsheet filled with the questions you think are important rather than the information the specialists want to provide? With brands needing ever more specific, informed, and customized attention from agency specialists, why would we think this sort of process is no less ridiculous for marketing services than medical services?

The question shouldn't be, "Does our RFI/RFP process allow us to be as objective and efficient as possible in choosing marketing services?" The only relevant question should be, "Does our selection process allow us to choose the absolute best partner who can enhance our brand and increase the profitability of our business in a rapidly changing world?" If you are a brand marketer and your RFI/RFP process prioritizes efficiency over effectiveness, toss it out and build a new process!


chris thiede said...

Having seen and been a part of the RFP process in the past, I've often been suspicious of the value it gives to agencies. You're entering into a process where there is a lot of competition and you're (possibly) not being evaluated on criteria that sets you apart. Not to mention all the time & resources it requires.

You present some good ideas for changing the process here. Now, how do those changes, or others, get implemented? How does the culture change?

Kyle Bailey said...

Awesome perspective! I am definitely gong to send my clients here to read your opinion.

Well done and written!

Take a look at my blog where I've written a bit about similar topics.

Augie Ray said...

Chris, I've come to respect agencies that refuse to respond to RFPs, but I still question if that's an appropriate business response to the challenges of agency RFPs. That seems like the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Of course, that may be the answer to your question about how we encourage change. Agencies either need to help clients understand how RFIs and RFPs may work against their goals, or agencies must simply refuse to answer. Doing so obviously is a risk, since it opens opportunities to the competition who do respond, but if enough agencies--particularly the ones in demand--were to take a stand, it might get brand marketers thinking.

Ultimately, this may be a futile effort. (I almost started that post with a statement that I knew it would fall on deaf ears.) So long as accountants demand control on the way marketing services are chosen, we aren't likely to see the RFI/RFP process change. The real change needed isn't between marketers and agencies but between marketers and their own corporate services divisions.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Kyle, I like your thoughts on

Funny story about how marketers have trouble walking the talk: A large agency organization who will go unnamed coaches its member organizations not to provide detailed lists of billable rates as part of RFP responses. They believe agencies should refuse this information, which demeans the value of the strategic services provided.

Funny thing is, when this same organization distributed an RFP for the redesign of its web site, care to guess what information they requested? You bet--they wanted detailed lists of the agencies' billable rates. My agency refused to participate, listening to the agency group's business advice rather than their RFP. Still, it goes to show how hard it is to break bad habits!

wilderzone said...

I've been through hellish RFPs on both the agency and client side, and I'm right there with you.

One thing I wanted to point out from the client side - using a 3rd-party procurement service will NOT save you money or time in the long run. A company I freelance for recently used one (I won't name names, other than to say it's a name most people would recognize) to bid out a large international printing contract. We (myself and another freelancer) ended up doing almost all of their work for them - answering the same questions over and over again, filling in ridiculous spreadsheets, endless conference calls that went nowhere. The final product was so long and involved that several of the printers that I thought were the most qualified declined to bid on it, and I couldn't blame them. In the end we only got two qualified bids out of about 15, but we did find a vendor we were happy with. Of course the procurement service billed mightily us for the privilege of having us do about 3/4 of the work we'd hired them to do for us.

A 3rd party won't immediately understand your business or needs, and will require a lot of hand-holding and micromanagement through the process of developing "your" RFP - and in the end they'll turn off potential partners with their overly rigid boilerplate requirements.

And to make matters worse, a few months later the same procurement service started asking for my help to write an RFP for the work I'm current doing! That leads to another point you'd think would be obvious (but apparently isn't) - don't have your current agency write the RFP for their own work. Really.

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the comments. We should create a site to trade RFP horror stories--it certainly would make for fascinating (and plentiful) content!