For Projects Less than $100,000, Ditch the RFP

Why Agencies Don't Want to Answer RFPs for Smaller Projects

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Are you a CMO with a $100,000 budget for a marketing project and can't find a great communications company or advertising agency to work for you? If so, it could be because of your search process.

Earlier this year, after turning down our third RFP, we spotted a trend. If you're issuing an RFP for any job under $100K, you're not going to find the right agency for you.

Why? For several reasons.

First of all, agencies are interested in creating quality work, and a limited budget can make that so challenging as to make an agency think twice before taking on a new assignment. Inspired, impactful work costs money, and there's an old (true) saying that you get what you pay for.

Also, any agency willing to spend a week or so filling out a 30- to 60-page RFP for a $100K project is more desperate for the work than you realize, and therefore probably not your best choice of a partner. Most talented and qualified agencies don't want to waste the time it takes to fill out a lengthy RFP on a piece of business they might not win -- at least not for $100K or less. Agencies might not want to admit it, but the simple fact is that it's quite possible in many cases to spend more time filling out the RFP than completing the project itself. And at the larger agencies -- those that have a full-time person (or staff) dedicated to answering RFPs -- a $100K project is simply too small for them to even consider.

Clients need to understand why this is the case. RFPs are not simple, cookie-cutter documents where agencies need only fill in the blanks with stock answers they've developed over time for the purpose of responding to RFPs. Sure, some answers are similar, but in a document that can reach up to 60 pages, there has to be a degree of specificity to the prescribed assignment. In other words, any agency worth its salt -- especially small to mid-sized shops -- will customize an RFP as much as possible in order to show the client what they can do.

There is also the creative element. RFPs hardly ever say they're looking for breakthrough ideas and are willing to let agencies truly shine with innovative creative work. If marketers showed a genuine desire to work with dynamic creatives, agencies would likely welcome the chance to pitch them, even for budgets of $100K or less. But clients just don't approach it that way.

A well-constructed, comprehensive and convincing response to an RFP is a chance to shine; it serves as a first impression an agency can make with a client and has the potential to make a lasting impact. And creating a document like that takes time -- a lot of time. Also, keep in mind that the RFP is researched and written by people who are also working their day jobs, handling existing accounts, so they usually have to work on the RFP on nights and weekends. If an agency is going to devote those kinds of resources to a project, it needs to know that the payoff is there at the end.

So how do you find the best agency partner for your $100K project without resorting to an RFP? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Visit an agency's website and spend some time reviewing it. You'd be surprised at what you might learn. Most of them have client lists, work samples, executive profiles and sometimes blog posts that reveal the agency's mission, vision, approach and philosophy.

2. How about a phone call? I don't know a single small or mid-size agency CEO or COO who wouldn't gladly take a phone call from a prospective client and tell her/him anything they'd like to know about the agency.

3. Consider a visit -- maybe ask for a two-hour meeting and have the agency tell you about themselves. It doesn't have to be a traditional credentials deck presentation -- just an informal get together at the agency's offices to give the client a sense of what the agency does and how they work. Such a visit gives the client a close-up look at the actual environment in which work is created. It can be an eye-opener and an easy way for both client and agency to know if a partnership might work (or not).

RFPs are time killers that take a ton of time for the client to make and even more time for an agency to fill out. RFPs for anything other than a long-term, reasonably big-budget AOR account are a bad deal for both sides. Otherwise, no one comes out a winner.

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