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The RFP: Make it a Win-Win

The RFP (Request for Proposal) signals opportunity for a creative firm! They’ve made it to your list of qualified firms. You’ll have multiple options from which to choose, pouring over creative samples and price ranges. Sounds like a win-win for both parties?

Not really.

For every creative firm that sees opportunity, another sees a cost to avoid. For every client that sees opportunity, another sees it as an onerous task that derails their real work, and is confused about the process.

The process might seem to favor the creator of the RFP. But there are hidden costs. Even the best-run RFP process has built-in flaws. You can get the most out of the process if you recognize the built-in flaws and costs, and then use workarounds.

Built-in Flaws

By nature, the typical RFP process eliminates the most positive, fruitful, collaborative elements from the process of developing effective identity and marketing communications.

The two sides rarely meet or talk. Familiarity smooths the path to collaboration, which is absent in most RFP processes. You and the winning bidder are now stuck with one another. If there isn’t a good connection, the work suffers and the process is frustrating for both sides. Misunderstandings happen even in the best relationships, but parties with well-established relationships can work around problems.

Also, because a proposal is really a suggestion, it benefits from being discussed. Designers welcome questions and a chance to clarify and suggest alternatives. A well-written, compelling proposal is an art and a science, much like design. But most RFPs lack the kind of information that make good proposal writing easy.

Too little scope vs. too much — a Catch-22. To compare apples-to-apples proposals — costs, approaches, work samples and experience — the scope of the work has to be so specific as to leave no wiggle room for unique solutions. Ideally, the RFP describes who you are, who you need to speak to, and what you hope to achieve (See an earlier post on Effectiveness). A creative firm could then propose the best ways to deliver the message. It’s a chicken and egg problem. A sole-source provider can explore different approaches if they aren’t hamstrung by a cookie cutter proposal. But when multiple firms bid, their cost estimates must reflect an already-defined scope, and that already-defined scope limits outcomes.

Little repeat work. Organizations that most often use RFPs are bound by procurement rules that don’t allow for repeat work with the same firm. Good creative firms know that the best work comes from a longer-term relationship where repeated exposure to one another allows for refining, improving and pre-planning.

Costs, and How to Avoid Them

When we think of costs, we think of dollars. Dollars are easy to count. But the non-monetary costs are often more insidious because not counting them can lead to bad decisions.

Compromised staff time
The proposal process can eat up time better spent on clarifying your vision, understanding your audience and spreading your magic. This is a true cost to an organization. I was once one of 17 proposers to an RFP  that included multiple emails to clarify a loosely defined brief. Four firms were interviewed by multiple staff members. It was likely a full-time job for the marketing director for weeks, and the real work had yet begun.

Two things you can do:

1. Select five or six firms with similar levels of talent and experience. Meet each one in person for half an hour. From that handful, select three to present proposals (one, if the process allows). Now you start the process with more knowledge of and confidence in the proposers. The proposers will be more invested and enthusiastic. You have fewer proposals to plow through. Win-win!

2. Create a good RFP that covers the essentials. Here’s an example. The better it is, the less time you will spend fielding questions and deciphering proposals. You review one or three targeted proposals, not 10 or 20. The project starts sooner, allowing more time for the right creative solutions to emerge. You should encourage your procurement department to eliminate bludgeoning language. Marketing work is different than a hauling hazardous waste. The RFP’s contractual language should reflect that.

Lack of effectiveness
There’s often an emphasis in RFPs on the what (brochure, website, poster), and not the purpose and what you’re trying to achieve. This can lead to bland, unfocused solutions. Effectiveness is hard to measure, especially on projects whose goal is to create image awareness, for example. Because of this, it’s imperative to include in the RFP your goals, aspirations and audience information. Entrust the proposer with these tools to hone the right message.

Loss of goodwill
Some firms will suspect that you’re fishing for prices and already know who you’ll hire. Creative firms are also wary of RFPs that don’t disclose a budget.

A budget (a ballpark is fine) helps the firm assess whether the project is a good fit for their services.

It saves your time and theirs. Most firms don’t use your budget to determine their fee. Be confident of your ability to assess a firm’s cost, talent and experience (together as a unit) when you see the proposals.

If you’re bound by an RFP process, don’t let it cripple your organization. Done well, you can make it a win-win for everyone involved so you can shout your best message from the rooftops with the resources you have.


  1. Hillerns says:

    Excellent topic, Jane, because there are so many issues involved. I think you did a nice job of bringing some of them to light, while leaving ample room for discussion and debate; much like an effective RFP should be designed.

    Generally, I view RFPs with suspicion, simply because they tend to become costly exercises for smaller firms, and are often appear weighted toward the larger, often generalist sales-driven firms with the proper ratio of employees, apples-to-apples project experience, and a so-called proprietary process. In fact, we know that the color or gender of an employee makes no difference in their abilities, no two clients are exactly the same, and the creative process is largely similar for every firm. The difference is that these firms assign clock-punching proposal-writers to respond to whatever the client wants to hear, rather than employing (and growing) the talent to deliver sound strategy and brilliant execution.

    Am I bitter? Perhaps. But that’s because I believe these potential clients — often government, non-profit, or educational entities — need the best thinking from our most-skilled talent. The construct of the RFP itself, and its grading criteria, often renders the most appropriate selection ineligible because the process itself is designed to supersede the human element.

    • Thanks for stopping in Eric and for expounding on this in such a thoughtful way.

      If I can take the liberty to define bitterness—because we likely think along the same lines—many of us prefer to use our creative skills for these organizations instead of other types of businesses. So it’s doubly disappointing. We want to see them succeed. We want to help them conserve dollars for the right activities so they CAN succeed. We also want thriving businesses, which is hard to do if you’re caught in the mire of something akin to blind speed dating.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this very issue, as you know. It seems that trying to find the right creative firm through an RFP is like trying to find the right employee by collecting resumes. The same applies the other way around. It just doesn’t work as well as it should.

    Hiring for expertise/experience, and, in the case of many RFPs, for price, stands in the way of hiring for relationship. A prospect once told me after an initial conversation that he now knew he could invite me to his Seder table, but I still needed to sell him on my strategic marketing consulting service. (I’m not Jewish, by the way.) RFPs are shopping around for the service, not for a relationship, and that’s why I usually stay away from them.

    • Peter, I like how you sum it up, which could have been a blog post much shorter than mine : ) If you simplify it down to relationship, the rest of it doesn’t matter. Though it would be nice to explore the diff. between the kind of RFPs we’re talking about and simply having to bid against a couple other firms–which can be done well, or poorly. I’ve experienced both.

      Funny thing is, you can be strung along by a single-person business but get years of repeat work from a big govt. agency.

      So, to me, part of the problem is the near inherent lack of relationship. But the other part, big RFP or not, is how a business carries out the process.

      Did you enjoy the Seder?

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