How to create a level playing field without commoditizing participants

This post is by Darren Woolley, Founder of TrinityP3. With his background as analytical scientist and creative problem solver, Darren brings unique insights and learnings to the marketing process. He is considered a global thought leader on agency remuneration, search and selection and relationship optimization.

There is a procurement practice to create a ‘level playing field’ during a tender process that says all information should be provided to all tender participants. While this seems like a reasonable practice it can also work against the intention of the tender if applied without discretion.

We have seen on a number of recent occasions where the practice of sharing the questions asked and the answers given with all tender participants, the procurement team has effectively commoditized the agencies with regards to the very attribute they are being selected on, being their strategic thinking.

Let me explain.

If you are selecting advertising, media or another type of marketing supplier, one of the core capabilities you will want to assess is their ability to strategically solve your marketing or advertising challenges. Therefore a significant part of the assessment will be their strategic thinking. Right?

So at the stage of the tender process when you invite questions there will be a range of questions from those around process and compliance to those that reveal their particular approach to solving a strategic marketing or advertising problem.

Example

In the questions asked by the agencies there could be a mix of questions like this:

  1. Will there be time for a face-to-face session with stakeholders before the tender submission?
  2. Do you have research on consumer sentiment and brand tracking?
  3. Are there performance metrics or feedback from the distribution network that we can review?
  4. How long will the presentation meetings be and who will be attending these?
  5. What competitive analysis can you share with us and what are the your major concerns?
  6. Of your past advertising activity what has been seen as the most effective and why?
  7. Is it possible for us to meet and interview staff working at the customer interface?
  8. From the time the tender is submitted how long is it planned to take before a decision is made and the business awarded?
  9. What advertising campaigns do the marketers admire either generally or competitively?
  10. If we have alternative fee models can these be provided in our submission?

These are all reasonable questions and have appeared from different agencies at various times on different tenders we have run. The question is would you share all of these questions and the answers with all of the agencies responding to the tender you are running?

If the answer is yes

The obvious answer is yes, because to create a level playing field for all tender participants to be able to respond equally means being completely transparent in providing the information equally to all parties? Right?

In this way everyone gets the same information and therefore the process is fair and equal. But are all of these questions the same and what are the implications of sharing all of them and their answers?

The fact is not all of these questions are equal. Some like questions 1, 4, 8 and possibly 10 are all process or compliance questions and so should be shared with all involved to ensure everyone has the equal opportunity to be compliant in their response. But what about the other questions 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9? What is their importance?

Why the answer should be no

If you are assessing the capability of the agencies to strategically solve your marketing or advertising problem then the start of that process is in the questions they ask and the information they are interested in obtaining.

On the basis the solution to the problem is in the way you define the problem, then sharing these questions simply shares the way each agency goes about solving your particular problem. Effectively in trying to level the playing field you are leveling the very capability you are trying to use to select your new agency. Why?

Because in sharing the agency questions with all of the other agencies you are also sharing insights into the approach the other agencies are taking to solve the problem. The other agencies may never have thought of talking with your employees or suppliers or retail customers to better understand the marketing problem you are asking them to solve.

They may never have thought of asking for specific competitive data or analysis, but in sharing their questions and your answers you have leveled the playing field to the point you may have effectively commoditised the supplier selection process.

At TrinityP3 we have experienced the same effect when tendering for a project, meaning that rather then revealing to our competitors our approach through the questions we ask we now only ask questions of a process or compliance nature as we are effectively giving away our competitive advantage if we share our questions with the other consultants.

In trying to make a level playing field you have simply hamstrung your tender participants from providing their best response. This is no more evident that when the procurement team insist on an open question and answer session with all of the tendering agencies present. Against our advice they insisted on holding the session and one procurement person was very chuffed saying “That went well, there were hardly any questions”. Not exactly the measure of a successful process from my experience.

What’s the solution?

  1. Make sure you create a level playing field in the process and in the tender participants being compliant.
  2. But also ensure you are not commoditising the very attributes you are trying to assess in a supplier by sharing their competitive approach with all.
  3. Create opportunities for participants to demonstrate their unique value in their approach, methodology and expertise rather then using these to create the lowest common denominator.

We are not saying you should not share information, but just as there is some information you would not share with any tender participant, because it is commercially sensitive or highly confidential, you should also be respectful of the supplier’s commercially sensitive and valuable information too. This information is often revealed in the questions they ask, which is a reflection of the approach they take and their methodology and expertise.

Look through the questions above again. Which of these questions and their answers would you share with all the tender participants? One of the reasons we have been so successful in managing these processes is we get the details right.

Photo: Mike Baird
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