Agencies fed up with marketers' unreasonable requests for proposals this week again yelled, "We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore!" While our rebellion against onerous and time-wasting RFPs may be on solid ground, however, we also need to take a long look in the mirror.
As much as we in agency land complain about the process, we are not immune to the siren song imploring us to put out our very own RFPs of doom. For every agency victimized by marketers' RFPs, there are many media companies enduring agencies' own relentless storm of requests. If the volume of requests we put into the market wasn't bad enough, many agencies ignore the vast majority of proposals that are submitted.
Recently, a digital media company founder and CEO told me his company submitted an amazing response to an RFP but had not heard anything back for a month. He used some connections to dig deeper and discovered that the agency had put out over 170 RFPs for the campaign. When pressed, the agency said they decided that they would only entertain responses from the five partners with the biggest audiences -- effectively alienating 165 other partners who never heard anything back. Many media companies or sellers with strong intestinal fortitude, like the agencies with the most self-esteem, are refusing to participate in wasteful RFPs.
But backlash from media owners is only one part of the problem. The bigger issue is how creativity is treated at agencies. In many cases the media RFP is essentially outsourced innovation. It is the equivalent of saying, "Our idea is to use this platform, but we have no idea what to do with it." In fairness, matching creativity with wide-scale reach for a major brand is a true challenge. But there is a better way.
Advertising technology is moving at a Kurzweilian pace. Big data, trading desks, and programmatic buying are allowing the most efficient targeted advertising at scale the world has ever known. The data and tools also allow planners to select the most relevant platforms and partners to go deeper with instantaneously. Combine that with a little experience and gut and we have a very compelling shortlist of the media apertures to get creative with. This is the moment when we can switch from the RFP to a more-selectively issued RFC -- a Request for Conversation.
A conversation with a media partner is an opportunity to sit around a table and create, to push boundaries for brands and to come up with new ways to use the media platforms, inject new technologies, inspire custom content, reskin, rework and reinvent.
This is the most exciting part of the job, and instead we are often sifting through responses and shuffling other people's off-the-shelf ideas around.
The long-term danger for agencies that don't change is commoditization. When we respond to marketer RFPs and we need to answer the inevitable question about differentiation, what will we say? Eventually the big data and trading desk technology will be available from everyone -- including the publishers and networks themselves. On top of that, ultimately an algorithm can automatically generate a media RFP and sift through the responses, passing the best ones directly to marketers. Resume robots do exactly that for big companies by scanning for phrases and keywords.
We have to look five years into the future and honestly ask ourselves, "Can a robot do my job?" If the answer is yes, you better make your skill set more creative because at least "creative" robots are still a good twenty years away.
We need to make brands come to life wherever people read, watch, click, play, scroll, swipe, listen, learn, laugh, or create. This takes custom thinking and handcrafted ideas. The great news is, the less we depend on the RFP, the more fun, the more important, and the more human our jobs become.