How not to write an agency RFP

Over the last twelve years we’ve had the privilege of writing RFPs for some of Canada’s leading marketers and I’d like to think we’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t along the way.

Periodically, we’ll come across an RFP document written by a client – often edited or ‘enhanced’ by asks from procurement or legal (or both) – for the resulting pig’s breakfast to then make its way to agency inboxes.

When it’s bad, agencies often call us to ask how best to respond. And when it’s really bad, it’s a journalist looking for more on a story. Some come wrapped in red-tape with (literally) 50 pages of terms and conditions, others are so laden with asks they’ll sink before they set sail, while others are just bizarre. Case in point was one that crossed my desk last week stating that their target audience for their ask was: “CXOs, CIOs, CFOs and CEOs of enterprises that are 500 men and above” Now, I’m assuming that just means ‘people‘ – or not(?) – but you get the point. Bizarre.

The reality is, RFPs are as much a reflection of you and your organization as they are about finding the right agency partner for your business. Whatever you put out, typically reflects what you’re like as a client. Lots of terms, conditions and red tape? Well, that’s likely what agencies will need to expect. Short timelines with an unreasonable number of asks? Rapid response teams will probably be what’s needed on the business. And so on.

So it occurs to me this week that it might be helpful to shine a little light for anyone working on a home-grown RFP and point out some pitfalls well worth avoiding:

Over-stuffing documents

The biggest mistake most marketers make with home-grown RFPs is over-stuffing them to the point of bursting. Ask everything you can possibly think of, before passing it on to another group who want to ask a whole different set of questions and so on down the line until it goes out. The result is either 300 page responses from each agency you asked to participate, which will take weeks for your internal teams to evaluate, or, presentations which can only possibly hope to answer the first four questions in your document. If there’s one thing you should take away from this, please – keep it simple and remember that less will almost certainly reveal more.

Leaving out crucial information

OK, let’s get to the good stuff and ask to see creative, right? Hold on a moment… Before asking for anything you need to provide agencies with a sense what they’re pitching for. This includes details of your RFP process, your anticipated budget, key requirements, scope of the business that’s up for grabs as well how agencies will be evaluated. This is essentially the agency’s roadmap for success and without it they’re just having to guess as to whether you’re right for them, just as you’re guessing whether they’re right for you.

Expecting a silver bullet

Contrary to what some might believe, RFPs aren’t an invitation to provide a silver bullet solution to all your marketing problems in one presentation. No agency can ever be expected to understand your business as well as you do, or appreciate the nuances of what makes your organization unique. So if your expectation is that you’ll find a silver bullet strategy or creative idea that will miraculously catapult your brand into the stratosphere, you should pack a parachute. Ideas presented in pitches are typically only ever directional and demonstrate how an agency might approach your business – they’re not a shortcut to whatever final solution you might be looking for.

Asking unnecessary questions

We’ve seen a huge number of RFPs that ask some painfully unnecessary questions – ‘do you have an office in Quebéc‘, for example or ‘do you provide account management‘ (yes really, that was a question), or ‘do you have a process…?‘ And while those kinds of questions may tick some governance boxes, they’re not really doing much else. In fact, they’re actually taking away from the questions that really matter – particularly if you’re in a situation where you need to evaluate based on a 60 or 90 minute presentation. Typically the basics can be determined with some minimal desk research and leave plenty of room for your RFP to focus on what’s really important.

So am I being too tough here? No, I don’t think so. But I do think expectations are sometimes out of alignment with reality – either because marketers don’t weed out unnecessary questions, or because they expect too much from their RFP documents, and / or because they expect too much from their participating agencies.

Care and clarity of thought need to be poured into RFP documents to maximize the results. And while it may seem counter intuitive, the answers often lie in taking out, rather than adding in. Focus on what’s really important and remove all else, and agencies will likely reflect that back in powerful and unexpected ways that may even leave you spoiled for choice.

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else.

Photo: Arielle Fragassi
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