Reimagining the RFP to benefit both agency and client

Besides being a pain in the keister, they can be a huge drain on your resources. The author of ‘Spin Sucks’ has devised a new approach, starting early on as a partner, rather than a bidder.

Love them or hate them, requests for proposals, or RFPs as they’re known in our circles, are part of our lives.

I hate them.

They take tons of time, there’s no guarantee of a return on that time and energy, and a huge number of them are really badly written.

And yet they persist.

You can’t always avoid them, but there are methods to make them a smaller part of your business life, as well as ways to protect your time when you do have to respond.

RFPs are usually a waste of everyone’s time and money, but in the 14 years I’ve been running my own agency, we’ve developed a better way to do it.

What an RFP should include

Let’s say a municipality distributes an RFP to create a three-year integrated marketing communications program for its recycling initiative. It’s right up your alley, and your team is perfectly suited for it. It sounds pretty good at this point, right? Maybe, maybe not.

In a perfect world, RFPs would be well organized and would explain the scope of work, the specific requirements, the timeline, how the decision is going to be made and, most important, the budget.

You know, all the things you’d think would be obvious, but often aren’t.

This means that agencies are forced to create proposals—sometimes involving great time and expense—without really knowing the project goals and requirements.

Then there is the unwritten rule that a good percentage of RFPs are crafted with a specific firm in mind (oftentimes the incumbent), but they’re required to get three bids by procurement.

At my own agency, we don’t do RFPs anymore—and we rarely send a proposal. Sure, there’s a time and a place, but they’re few and far between.

Because we have a process—and have drawn a line in the sand about how we do and don’t work—we work only with our ideal clients, and we spend almost no time at all chasing down people to give us a yes-or-no answer.

Flipping the script

The real problem an organization hopes to solve by distributing an RFP is to get an idea of the different solutions available—along with fresh and creative thinking, right?

So why not flip the script and give them the information they need without the whole rigamarole?

I fully understand there are some industries—government, for example—that can’t get out of the RFP process.

For the rest of you, there’s a better option: Instead of waiting for people to come up with vague descriptions of what they’re looking for, you can take control by building an RFP approach plan into your business development process.

The beginning of our process is that we work with a new client on their strategy development. We do it as a two-day session—and we’re paid for that time, the strategy and the ideas.

In fact, clients spend significantly more money on an execution retainer than they would have had we just said, “It’ll be a quarter of a million dollars,” as part of a flowery proposal full of our best ideas.

We spend that time upfront asking questions, listening, digging into challenges they have, defining issues that are preventing their ability to move forward, and understanding the strengths of the members of their team.

Because we’ve helped them dig through their pain, they see us as partners—true partners in their organizations.

They’re happier. You do better work. And you stop wasting time responding to RFPs and writing proposals.

Choose your RFP responses carefully

If this is something you’d like to implement, check out what we’re doing for agency owners.

Now, in a perfect world, you can adjust your business model to change the kind of conversation you have with prospects, but not every company can avoid RFPs.

According to the PR Council, more than a third of all new business in the industry is generated as a result of them. That means, whether we like it or not, they’re still the way a lot of business is generated.

When you do must work within the RFP system, there are still ways to make sure you’re responding to the highest-quality requests and to increase your chances for a positive result.

Here are the signs of a good RFP, one likely to have the best outcome for you:

  • First and foremost, you need to see a scope of work. It should detail exactly what is going to be required, with what different elements, to achieve which goal and by what time. After reading an RFP, you shouldn’t be wondering, “What the heck do they want?”
  • Next, you absolutely need a target audience—who is this project for? You need a good understanding of the type of person you’re going to be dealing with, including variables such as age, location, profession. This information, as you well know, makes a huge difference in what kind of solution is going to be appropriate for them. If an RFP doesn’t include anything about the end users, run!
  • Finally, look for the selection criteria and timeline. You want to know before you start drafting a proposal exactly what that process will look like. It may be they require a firm with specific availability or expertise, and if they don’t mention it out of the gate, you’ll be out of luck if it turns out to be a requirement later on. This shows planning and consideration on the part of the organization. They’re demonstrating they respect your time by letting you know what they really need and how they need it. If they don’t, that’s a great indication of what working with them would be like.

When you do respond to RFPs, choose carefully. Doing so will drastically increase your return on investment—both time and money.

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich. She is the author of “Spin Sucks,” co-author of “Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

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