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Why We Hate RFPS

Everyone Hates RFPs

Alright, maybe “hate” is a strong word. But let’s be honest: RFPs–Requests for Proposal–are a lot of work for everyone involved whether you’re an agency, client, or a procurement-department-type person. 

But, why, oh why, do they have to be such a frustrating process? Is there a secret to making RFPs less sucky?

Why RFPs Sometimes Suck 

The list of “whys” could go on for miles, so here are the top four from our experience:

They can be driven by a rule-heavy and murky process. From an agency perspective, one of the biggest frustrations with RFPs is that there can be a lot of rules, but not a lot of transparency. That limits the strategic and creative collaboration that most great agencies live and thrive on. A rigid structure can make the process feel more like checking boxes than engaging in collaborative conversations, which is contrary to what a healthy agency-client relationship is all about.

They can be steered by a sprawling roster of stakeholders. RFPs are the method most brands use to find a new agency partner – which is a really big decision – so there’s usually a long list of stakeholders who want to have a say. But there’s a reason the term “decision by committee” means “crappy idea.” Naturally, every stakeholder has their priorities and perspectives, and not every opinion is equal in value and weight–a decades-long communications vet should probably have more input for a marketing RFP than, say, the Procurement Manager. Trying to align these various viewpoints and sift through feedback is a nightmare, and can distract from the whole point of the RFP: choosing the best partner for your project.

They can feel like the longest first date ever (and not always in a good way). We get it, it’s a big decision. Clients need to be thorough. But answering an RFP can feel like the longest first date you’ll ever go on. For agencies, it’s hours and hours above and beyond current client demands to try to understand and deliver what the client and selection team are looking for, all while making a great first impression. And usually, this happens a) without any compensation and b) in a vacuum. For clients, it’s work on top of their already hectic day-to-day to respond to questions, sift through thousands of slides, and sit on endless Zoom calls or in-person pitches to try to choose Mr. or Ms. Right.

Money and time constraints can squeeze the team. Like we just said, nobody really has time for RFPs, because RFPs don’t keep the lights on for anybody involved. And yet, agencies invest significant time and resources responding to tight-turn RFPs, while clients invest hours writing the damn things before the long, arduous interview process truly begins. For many agencies, even a win can feel like a loss for the first few months of a new relationship as the agency tries to dig out of the investment hole they’ve dug in response. 

9 ways you – as a client –  can make the RFP process (and result!) much better

1) Don’t Abuse the RFP Process 

Using an RFP to validate an already-made decision or to pressure test if a current agency is still the best choice is just downright rude. If you are second-guessing your agency partner, conduct a review first. Then, if you need to, issue an RFP.

2) Provide Ample Information That Actually Matters

Agencies generally know little about your business, even after a digital deep dive. Sharing as much of that good, behind-the-curtain information as possible about your operations, values, and tools is crucial in helping agencies determine early on if they are a good fit, which ultimately helps you select the best partner. Feeling shy? Get an NDA–most agencies sign dozens every year.

3) Answer Questions Promptly and Thoroughly

If you allow agencies to ask questions (and you really should), make sure to respond quickly. Preparing an RFP response takes time, and the answers to these questions often significantly inform the agency’s approach. And “that information is covered in the RFP” is not really an answer. No one would ask if it was.

4) Break Down Unnecessary Barriers

Bureaucratic layers–procurement processes, legal mumbo jumbo, etc.–usually dampen or eliminate one of the key indicators of a successful agency-client relationship: understanding how we’ll work together. The best RFP experiences (for everyone) have transparency and collaboration at their core.

5) Ask Only for What You Really Need to Make a Decision

Simplicity is key: the simpler the RFP, the more likely someone will respond. Don’t ask for things you don’t care about just because they seem like “things one should ask during this process.” Only request information that is absolutely necessary for making decisions. Agencies are generally happy to provide more details in a second and third round if needed and are more likely to surprise you with some original thinking if they aren’t busy filling out meaningless background info.

6) Split Up Projects When Possible

Sometimes it’s easier for one agency to handle all the work, but that’s not always true or the best case for you. Different projects, like a brand campaign and a website overhaul, often require distinct skill sets, timelines, and internal stakeholders, so splitting up projects can often lead to better results and stronger partnerships.

7) Get the Right People Involved Early

Ensure that all key stakeholders are involved from the beginning. Introducing an agency to a crucial decision-maker after the fact can be both uncomfortable and counterproductive.

8) Respect the Time You’re Asking For

Agencies get paid based on time invested, and when it comes to RFPs, that investment can climb into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it’s unpaid time that has to displace paid time. So please, be respectful. Create deadlines that are reasonable. Ask for what you need to make a decision, and nothing more. 

9) Share A Budget. Any Budget

No one goes shopping for a car without a budget ballpark in mind. The same goes for shopping for an Agency.  There are always some budget parameters somewhere, and just knowing the ballpark you’re thinking about is a big help for how your agency will be able to service your account. Being clear with budget ranges upfront will eliminate some respondents from the race before they’re submitted, but that saves you and them a lot of wasted time. (P.S. there’s almost always room to negotiate once you’ve narrowed your finalists and really start chopping up the details).

RFPs don’t have to suck. 

It seems like a “no-duh” statement, but we think there are two simple mantras to keep in mind to make this whole RFP thing a lot less sucky. 

For clients: If an agency is responding, they genuinely want to work with you. Treat them like the partner you hope they can become. 

For agencies: Remember this is a really big decision for clients, so help them (and help them help you) make the right decision. Plus, this is the life you’ve chosen, so suck it up and be as awesome as you are. 

At the end of the day, the best RFP responses are like a first date–the best kind of first date. Fun, full of questions, discovery, excitement, and anticipation. So relax, everyone. Be yourself. Have fun. Just please, please bring a budget.

About Greg Abel

Greg Abel | Founder of Tailfin Marketing
Greg has been disrupting the ad industry for decades. After graduating from UGA’s Grady College of Journalism, Greg found his path at big ad agencies as a Media Planner and Account Executive. From there, Greg jumped on the digital wave at a consultancy where he helped to develop digital strategy and online user experiences for a range of consumer brands. In 1999, Greg co-founded Tailfin, an ad agency that specializes in branding, traditional and digital advertising, engaging content development, and social media.

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