Brands and Agencies: Is It Time to Kill the RFP?

Four Reasons Why You Should Never Respond to an RFP

By Published on .

It's a debate that never seems to go away -- should your agency respond to an RFP? It came up again this summer when the RFP "Wildcard" call from Lyft provoked responses that ranged from industry veterans advising young creatives to seize every opportunity they can get and respond, to outraged ad execs skewering Lyft, accusing it of asking agencies for unpaid creative output.

In some ways, both sides are right. For young agencies, responding to an RFP can be a realistic shot at landing a big client out of the gate, while for more established ones, it can feel like an insult to be asked to prove yourself again and again. What is missing from the conversation, however, is the argument that RFPs don't just put agencies in an awkward position -- they're also bad for clients. Here are the top four reasons brands need to abandon and agencies need to turn a blind eye to the RFP:

1. Process over problem. I've been fortunate to work with great procurement teams when I was on the client side, but generally those processes are focused on getting the best deal from the vendor by lowering costs, not looking for the most creative and effective solutions.

Beyond pricing, RFPs have a tendency to seek out solutions for problems that are too generic (i.e. "We need a better creative expression of our brand message") or, in the worst situations, the wrong problem altogether. The best ideas and results usually come from rethinking the problem statement, but most RFPs don't provide the respondents with the chance to reframe, rethink or reposition the brand problem. By following a tight RFP process, brands will receive proposals for the problem they've put forward, but not necessarily the right problem to solve.

2. Wrong deliverables. Most RFPs articulate a set of specific deliverables that must be completed as part of the process. By responding, agencies are essentially agreeing to a set of deliverables that don't reflect their own process or insights and, all too often, aren't focused on what consumers really want (or what the brand really needs). This means that even if you win the RFP, you're starting from step two of the process, and working to execute ideas that may not be right for the brand.

3. Lack of collaboration and coinvention. Some of the most successful brand solutions are a result of the cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge across teams at the beginning of a relationship. However, by replying to an RFP, brands and agencies effectively give up prime opportunities to collaborate and coinvent. Instead of building a stronger working relationship through collaboration and learning, brands get to know their future teams through impersonal biography and case study slides in a deck. The RFP oftentimes stymies collaboration, thought sharing and camaraderie that precipitate great ideas.

4. Rough insights and bad ideas lead to rework. Many RFPs ask agencies to present ideas based on a set of high-level research or insights provided as part of the RFP process. These insights are usually just one part of the larger story, and the ideas that agencies create in response to these parameters are therefore inexact. This means that once a team does win the business and gets down to work, the original plan is scrapped and the agency must reassess and create a new plan that factors in all new aspects contributing to the problem.

It might be time to kill the RFP. For brands looking for breakthrough ideas, it isn't a great use of time and they're an expensive way for agencies to establish productive, mutually beneficial working relationships. Instead, brands and agencies should be having open, honest conversations that allow for transparent understanding of the root of the problem and a mutual understanding of what steps are needed to overcome the challenge.

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