Marketers: It's Time to Say RIP to the Media RFP

Rethinking the Traditional Media Buy Means More Creative Partnerships

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Cassette tapes. Catalogs. Floppy disks. Fax machines. The list of things rendered obsolete by the digital age grows longer every year. But here's one practice it can't seem to kill off fast enough -- the media RFP.

In a slower, less-connected era, a laundry list of standard questions and a formal, arms-length RFP operation may have been the most effective and fair way for a brand to solicit media business. But in an age of constant iteration it just feels lazy and wildly inefficient. In my 20-plus years of marketing, I have yet to see a truly creative idea come from a standard RFP.

Listen, I get it. It's familiar. It's comfortable. It's the devil we know. But I absolutely believe that, collectively, it's holding us back from producing our best ideas. RFPs favor off-the-shelf, fill-in-the-blank, template-based recommendations. They don't inspire new thinking or give fledgling ideas room to grow.

So let's finally pull the plug on the RFP -- may it rest in peace.

Let's agree to bury an old-fashioned idea and tell the media world that we'll only entertain bespoke ideas. Let's put out a sign that says we're only looking for creative partners, not sales proposals.

About two years ago, our marketing team at GE rallied behind a no-RFP stance. We elected to put the time in to sit with media partners and platforms -- to get to know them, and for them to get to know our brand. Since then, as a team, we've introduced what I consider to be some of our best work yet. Our award-winning "Fallonventions" branded-content segments with NBC's "The Tonight Show" grew out of this approach, as did our "World in Motion" partnership with Quartz and our new "Breakthrough" TV series with the National Geographic Channel.

Is it harder? Yes and no. It takes a lot more time -- but it's time well spent. Successful programs are highly customized, which means you need to be really good at articulating your brand proposition. And it means that everyone who comes to the table needs to do her homework about each partner. Working without an RFP is uncharted territory, and some publishers and agencies are uncomfortable with co-inventing new rules.

But when I think about the many ring-around-the-rosy conversations that characterize the standard RFP process, I literally want to cry. In a post-RFP world, agencies and publishers don't waste time on proposals that will never go anywhere, and brands don't devote resources to sifting through cookie-cutter submissions. Instead, time and talent can be invested where it matters: in identifying breakthrough experiences that are good for users and drive attention -- the only metric that really matters.

It also opens the door to deeper, more dynamic partnerships between brands, publishers and agencies. Producing our best work has come from forging relationships with producers, writers and talent, not just sales teams. We've had to rethink the traditional media buy, expand our skillsets and test entrenched mindsets. But we've come away from each partnership better equipped to discover the next big idea.

Finally, sidestepping the RFP can even help drive better ROI. Higher-value content improves bottom lines across the board and, most importantly, creates user experiences that make an impact. And isn't that the gold standard we all want to achieve?

As marketers, our lifeblood is the new and the novel, and when old habits start hemming us in, it's time to shed them. If we don't, the list of the obsolete will include a particularly unfortunate addition -- us.