Three Simple Steps to Improving the RFP

by Ellie Johnson on January 26, 2010

in Design,Just Sayin',Media,Uncategorized

MissedTargetThere is not a lot of love out there for the RFP.  I came across this well-written post filled with respect for the agency-client relationship and disdain for the RFP.  I love their list of very valid points, so I thought of a few to expand upon.  I won’t bore you with my opinion on how pathetic the RFP process is as a standard business practice and how even the best written RFPs and their responses will likely fail to identify the best agency to serve your company’s brand.  I will leave it with that one sentence, and let you draw your conclusions.  (As a side note, if you also have ideas on how we can be the champions for killing the RFP and promote a platform that will revolutionize our industry – @ me.)

So to add to their thoughts, and because I don’t see the end to RFPs in the near future – here are some personal requests to consider when you’re writing the RFP intended to help your company select a digital agency to launch the next phase of your business:

  1. Do your homework. The more work that you and your team put into creating a well written, organized and detailed RFP, the more thoughtful and valuable the responses will be. Your team should invest a meaningful amount of time identifying your pain points, where your business has gone off track and how your stakeholders want to see business turn around.  Have sales slipped? Why? Who’s accountable or what?  Have you been successful up to this point without integrating social media, display or search engine marketing but you want to reach your customers online now?  Are your traditional marketing channels drying up or becoming too costly?  Do your best to provide as many of these types of details as you possibly can in the RFP.
  2. Be as detailed as possible. I see so many RFPs that sum up the purpose of the RFP in one paragraph and tell me nothing in any detail about the company, the team, information on previous marketing, advertising or branding efforts, assets that you have already established versus material that needs to be created, the reasons for time lines, budgets.  If your team put your heads together and you learned that you don’t know what you need, you just know that your business is not where it could be – then put THAT in the RFP.  Here’s the kicker though – your best investment will be to pay an agency to work with your team to discover the solutions that will right your ship and fuel your success.  That should then be Phase 1 defined in your RFP.
  3. Don’t ask for free work. Ahh, the “wow me factor.”  I obviously want my agency to impress you with our response to your request, and I am excited for the opportunity to share our ideas with your team.  However, asking us to submit concepts or produce work at this stage of your decision making process is not good form. (Besides, if you haven’t done a good job with #1 and #2 – then how will we ever hit the mark?)  The AIGA has their opinion on “spec work” which I agree with.  Every designer or new business developer has a story about how their work was ripped off in an RFP process.  I understand why a company would ask for ideas or spec work to be submitted with an RFP response, but the reality is that it’s not fair practice, and it can make potential partners feel like the company views them on a subordinate level at the start.  Instead, ask the agencies to show you relevant work that they have created, the challenges that they faced and problems that they solved.  Their previous work should wow you.

In reality, the company issuing the RFP needs help solving real business problems, and the agency has the experience to offer valuable solutions; respect for what each party brings to the relationship is best. Responding to RFPs comes at a cost of non-billable work hours to the agencies but the investment is worth it when an opportunity to collaborate comes along that can show a real mutual benefit for a strategic partnership.  (I wish it wouldn’t come as an RFP but we’ll change the world tomorrow.) We should have a deep respect for one another and a passion for the work that each company does.  As your agency, my business is going to grow with your company’s success.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

ashley January 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm

spot on!


David January 26, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Don’t be afraid to push back on the request and speak up, perhaps even recommend that the issuer consider a more considerate RFP process (spec work ranks #3), but it’s also helpful to put out articles like that that you hope a RFP-issuer reads before writing their RFP. We’ve done the say here with our “6 tips to a better RFP

I wrote an article a while back entitled “Not all Requests for Proposals are worth a proposal” a while back that I believe strongly applies here

I think we all need to remember that RFPs are plentify, (see The RFP Database for LOTS of RFPs) and that by being selective we can focus our efforts on the RFPs that we can win and avoid the situations that make us feel so strongly about the process. Developing a go/no-go decision tree is often helpful in this regard to keep you focused on the good RFPs




ellie johnson January 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Thanks for leaving your notes and David – I have always enjoyed your posts about the subject. It is in our industry’s best interest to help everyone get better business done through stronger, more valuable partnerships!


David January 26, 2010 at 5:06 pm

We’ll get there together!

We created the RFP Database because we ourselves were sick of paying ridiculous amounts of money in subscription fees and commissions in order to even gain access to RFPs.

Through educating potential clients we can make a difference and a more positive and considerate RFP process.

Keep it up!


Michael Hubbard michaelhubbard January 26, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I once heard that the largest RFP processes cost the competing agencies well into the 6-figures just for the chance to win the business. This alone baffles me and can’t be good for the client or the agency. To the agency, obviously spending this amount of money to finish 2nd place is not good for business… But for the client, it is also not good as it is eliminating mid-sized agencies that may be brilliant, but don’t have deep pockets to showcase themselves. I’m all for RFP-reform, but we all know, it won’t happen any time soon.


RFP Mike July 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Great amount of historical data is very important for contractors when it comes to compliances… you don’t find that info everywhere with the same structure ! price, sure – but service and also, quality of data, relevancy in the lists you get in your email (to get contracts) are also fundamentals (bidnet / governmenbids are top 2 here)


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