It's no surprise that "innovation" is listed prominently as a qualification in almost every RFP. This is good for small agencies, which are, by nature, fertile ground for fresh thinking. We run lean, mean and agile. Teams choose a small agency because they want to work in an environment that encourages innovation, without all the ground rules and politics that weigh down larger organizations.
Our challenge is to demonstrate to potential clients' satisfaction that we are in fact innovative. A typical, and troubling, conversation will go something like this:
Company: We want an innovative agency that will build a first-of -its-kind virtual reality tour of a state park, delivered via mobile.
Agency: We're the right agency for you. We have loads of mobile experience, a great process for driving innovation and people who bleed innovative ideas.
Company: Great. Provide us with three examples of virtual reality tours of state parks that you've delivered via mobile.
Huh? You want us to prove that we are the right partner by showing you an example of where we already did the innovative thing that you are requesting? If we've already done it, it's no longer innovative.
True innovation almost always requires putting new challenges in front of big thinkers; when has it ever been about finding an exact match in someone's portfolio? How well would the Manhattan Project have turned out if a requirement for project lead was to demonstrate that you'd developed three atomic bombs already? Robert Oppenheimer would not have made the cut.
It's not that case studies are irrelevant; they reveal your agency's style and show off prior innovative solutions. But we need to make sure that the client is seeking true innovation and not just repeating a buzzword. Agencies must answer the RFP in a way that guides the client to looking at the right things.
Innovation comes from within an agency; it has to be in its DNA. Take the example of the virtual reality tour of a state park (which, by the way, is a close approximation of a real request). If I were to answer such an RFP, I'd be able to show the client that we'd done some good thinking on ways to enhance the role of location in mobile experiences, that we have a history of bringing new technologies to the user experience, and that we have a development methodology that will ensure the project delivers on its goals. Specific experience developing an app like this? Nope. The right agency for the job? You bet.
We need to help potential clients understand that you can't shop for innovation the way you shop for printer paper. Our responses should push clients to place trust in the process, people and track records equally and encourage them to look for a true innovator rather than a ringer.