Remember That Zappos RFP? Here's What Was Wrong With It

Agencies That Don't Want to Be Treated Like Cattle Shouldn't Act Like Cattle

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Eric Webber Eric Webber
Much has been made lately about the mad scramble by agencies to get into the Zappos review (prior to the most recent news about Amazon buying the company).

What happened wasn't anything new -- a cattle call, spec creative review. Clients have been holding them for years. And agencies have been griping about them just as long.

Zappos had originally planned on a closed review of 16 agencies to complete an RFP, which included spec creative. If that was the whole story, I'd still have rolled my eyes. First, 16 agencies is way too many. With the resources available, there's no reason a client can't narrow a list to four or five agencies it feels will be a good fit.

And then there's the whole spec-creative deal. I don't know any agency that doesn't moan about having to do that. And it isn't just the possibility of giving away our ideas for free. It's that coming up with a campaign from whole cloth in a week or so doesn't really show what an agency can do. Or at least it doesn't show what we ought to be doing for a client. It's giving them a nicely wrapped box with nothing inside.

There are a couple of reasons clients insist on asking for it. Laziness comes to mind. Picking the prettiest ad is an easy, if shallow, solution. But the biggest reason clients make agencies do it is because, well, they can. And agencies are only too happy to oblige.

But back to Zappos, whose review really got out of hand. After news of the review became public, agencies lobbied to join the original 16. And Zappos said, "Come on in," until it had more than 100 agencies involved.

I'm not sure why on earth any marketing person would subject himself to reading even a portion of that many responses. I'm hoping someone from the client side can provide some insight. Is it really the best use of your time and energy, just for the off chance of finding a diamond in the rough?

This particular review has received a lot more attention than others of its ilk, largely because one of the participating agencies has very publicly cried, "J'accuse!" They used Google Analytics to track the amount of time Zappos actually looked at their online response and were shocked -- shocked!! -- that it was only given a brief once-over.

Maybe it was the sheer volume of responses that resulted in the cursory examination. Or it could have been, and my apologies for seeming harsh here, that a quick glance was all that was needed to make the call.

More likely, Zappos looked first at the 16 agencies they pre-selected, then dove into the next 100, and after only a few they all began to look the same.

Imagine the Miss America pageant having the usual 50 state winners for the judges to assess, then after that they decide to trot out, I don't know, another 200 or so. You think No. 199 is going to suddenly look better to the judges than, say, No. 19? (That'd be Miss Maine on your scorecard.)

A couple of years ago the Texas State Health Department was looking for an agency to handle a children's-health-insurance program. I was asked to sit on the committee charged with recommending an agency. Since it was a state project, anyone could submit a response to the RFP, and so everyone did. Don't get me wrong; there were a lot of good responses. But I had trouble with those on the bottom of my stack on account of my ears starting to bleed somewhere between respondents No. 25 and 30.

I know at this point I'll be accused of either not being very original or creative myself, so incapable of recognizing that some agencies can come up with something totally unique from their peers. Could be. But c'mon. Given the constraints of most RFPs, maybe we all just start sounding alike pretty quickly.

Either way, the hand-wringing over this kind of review strikes me as disingenuous. If you're wiling to jump through hoops like this, go right ahead. Just don't do it then bitch about it afterward.

Because if you think this kind of practice by potential clients is abusive, there's an easy solution. Don't do it. They're probably gonna treat you the same way after they hire you anyway.

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