Rethinking the RFP

This is the time of year when people are rethinking their habits. It’s a time to reflect and improve—heck, you can even refashion what it means to be you. Whether it’s actually using that dusty gym membership, resolving to be more proactive or challenging yourself to become a model citizen in all facets of the word, the new year is full of hope and promise. But one change you might think about adding to your list is one that has yet uncharted potential, and it involves a fairly rudimentary practice within the marketing world: request for proposals (RFPs).
Intrigued? So were we. There is a small wave gaining momentum, and it requires taking a look at the supposedly tried and true RFPs. Some companies have found that upon examination, this systematic approach just might not be the best way to go. We all know the drill: company X outlines what it wants included in a proposal, and company Z does whatever it can to meet the requirements within the given price point. However, company Z is competing with others to provide the best options with the lowest prices. A winner is chosen and a contract is signed, then the process continues.
Some companies choose to veer off the path a little. We here at JB Chicago have sometimes opted to take a risk by coming back to company X and saying, “You know, we think we have a better way to do this.” Is it risky? Yes. Does it pay off? Sometimes. But does it allow for more creativity from the marketing end? Definitely.
However, this is not the aforementioned “wave.” A case study in October’s Marketing News (“Stop the RFP Madness” by Jeff Borden) highlighted how one advertising and communications agency, Fletcher Martin, is no longer seeking out RFPs. Instead, the Atlanta-based company now charges fees based on whether or not their firm delivers. This change was made after staff members realized none of what they felt were their best recommendations within the past 10 years were even put to use. Their new model now means clients pay Fletcher Martin to complete basic strategic summaries and assessments, during which they have full access to all employees, customers, research, etc. If they like what they see initially they can purchase the campaign, and fees are then based on the results.
Admittedly, this approach is not without its downsides. It can be intimidating and unfamiliar to those who see no problem with RFPs. And it also limits the number of potential clients Fletcher Martin can sell because, according to President Andy Fletcher, “Our assumption is that we’re not the right agency.” Time and research are essential before a right fit can be determined, but in once it is, the aftermath plays out fairly for both the agency and its client.
That perfect fit can make all the difference. When you boil it down, doesn’t every agency long to do what it’s great at—and doesn’t it pay off for everyone in the end? A speech by Blair Enns, delivered to the Annual Congress of the Bureau of European Design Agencies in Berlin, Germany on March 23, 2007, really drove the “question the method” message home. When addressing use of RFPs, she said clients ask for information in this format because they can. They have the power to demand your agency’s best work for free because you don’t say no—you want the work. And clients are also afraid—they don’t want to select the wrong agency, they don’t want to waste their money and they don’t want things to take a wrong turn after signing with the agency. They ask for as much as possible upfront because they do not want to make a mistake.
This all makes sense, but Enns has the real use of this method narrowed down to what she calls the industry’s “dirty little secret.” And what is that, you ask? Agencies have an “addiction” on the presentation. And by this, she means the unveiling of our work. It’s the moment of truth when we want to hear the magical words: “It’s perfect.” It’s the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning and it’s the thing that our dreams are made of at night.
So what is the solution? It’s never cut and dry, but for the most part, it involves some thinking outside the box. As Enns points out, “For an industry that is supposed to think differently at every turn, this creative thinking seems rare on the business side of the design business.” She says an agency’s “ability to win without pitching is an indicator of their strength in the marketplace.” Whether or not Fletcher Martin’s approach will work across the board has yet to be determined, but their forward-thinking model is enough to make one think. Yes, it is a time for rethinking our lives—could it be time to rethink our business practices as well?

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