The Tyranny of the RFP

Business Development

The Tyranny of the RFP

Apr 12, 2023 / By Vanessa Horwell

Friends, PR pros, and fellow agency types lend me your ears

I come not to praise the RFP but to bury it.

The Request for Proposal is a constant of agency life, looming like a centurion in front of every potential sizeable corporate contract. They have an ostensibly noble purpose - to objectify and quantify work that is often subjective and qualitative. The RFP is meant to level the playing field, but as anyone who’s responded to one knows, they, in fact, do exactly the opposite.

I can’t think of any of my colleagues in boutique or mid-sized agencies with an RFP win rate that justifies the expense of pursuing them. The RFP process has certainly never worked for us. Somehow, through this supposedly objective process, the RPFs are awarded to the incumbents, or the new PR/CMO/Comms director invites her previous agency to submit, and voila, they get the gig.

But the RFP is an honorable process. 

Gini Dietrich, the founder of Spin Sucks, posted a great article about her agency’s approach to RFPs on LinkedIn earlier this year (spoiler: she doesn’t respond to them anymore). One of the points she raised really resonated with me: RFPs are inherently imbalanced. They create, as she puts it, an “unhealthy relationship” wherein only one party is required “to grovel, jump through hoops, and sometimes even beg. And it’s often required without any clear direction or the opportunity to have conversations with the hiring team to discover what their pain is and put together a proposal specifically for them.”

But the RFP is an honorable process.

Thousands of agencies respond to RFPs every year, and it’s easy to understand why—the allure of landing a large corporate account. The pride of knowing your agency can do the work better than your competitors. The sheer need to bid for business when, after COVID, so many other avenues of business development (industry conferences, pipelines reliant on in-person interactions) were closed. And when you don’t respond, there’s the feeling of missing out and guilt. 

RFPs are a blunt instrument

But as Dietrich indicates – and as I’ve explained before during a webinar with O'Dwyer's – the RFP is simply inefficient. We shouldn't feel guilty for shunning the process if it doesn’t work for us. If, like us, your agency gets better results from direct interaction with stakeholders, understanding their pain points, and crafting considered, tailored proposals that offer solutions to real-world needs (and I’ll bet that you do), then that’s where you should put your time and effort.

What if you have no choice, though? I’m not talking about agencies that deal primarily with governmental agencies (who are by law compelled to submit RFPs) but agencies for whom the bulk of their potential clients are habitual RFP issuers. Then I’d recommend this:

An honest, incisive approach

Take the necessary steps to analyze your incoming RFPs and decipher if they are worth the time and effort. Spending countless hours building and perfecting a proposal is not worth the trouble if its fate is to die in a black hole.

Ask yourself: Can you work directly with the key decision-makers and make a pitch in person? Or are you sending off the proposal with no further collaboration? Was the RFP created by the company itself or submitted by an agency hired to do the work for them? Are the questions well thought out and coordinated with the industry, or are the questions general and basic? How you answer these can help you identify when (and when not) to move forward with a proposal.  

Like Caesar, RFPs can feel inevitable. But they are not inescapable nor immortal. They can be avoided, and when they can’t, there are better ways to approach them that tax your resources (and your sanity) far more lightly. And when the RFP is interred in the distant future, let us withhold our mourning.

Bad Shakespeare aside, what are your thoughts on RFPs? Does your agency pursue them regularly, or do you take a different approach?

Vanessa Horwell

Vanessa Horwell
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