Love them or hate them: The pros and cons of RFPs for agencies

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“RFP.” These three letters alone can bring up a whole mix of emotions and reactions, and with good reason. If you work at an agency in particular, it's likely you’ve responded to many an RFP or “Request for Proposal,” and experienced both success and heartache with them, too (insert relationship status: It's complicated).  

Even if you got your first big client break with an RFP, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should always keep going back for more.

As a wise man once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That wise man was none other than Albert Einstein.

And with only 7% of teams reporting an 80-100% proposal win rate, it can feel as though scoring an RFP is like winning the lottery.

No wonder there are a whole bunch of agencies committed to cutting back on the number of RFPs they respond to, or even nixing participating in them all together. So, what’s an agency to do?

Now more than ever, the amount of work agencies have to put into winning a new client is in overdrive with an abundance of agencies in the marketplace (but hey, this also means there’s more demand for agency services!). With this in mind, many agencies would rather forgo investing a ton of their team’s time and ideas into big proposals given there is no guarantee of a return or protection for their ideas.

So, is an RFP right for you and your agency? In this post, we’ll break down the main pros and cons. Let’s dig in!

The cons of RFPs

You may miss the mark on building a connection

RFPs can feel transactional. They’re often impersonal, avoiding live interaction all together. For example, you may read through a set of guidelines, put a proposal together with those guidelines in mind, and simply submit it via email. While this is not always the case (agencies will often be asked to “present” ideas, too), it's not uncommon either. 

Sure, we’re in a digital world, but agency folks know you do your best work with clients when you really have a connection with them. This gives you the opportunity to truly understand their needs, be transparent, manage expectations upfront, and most importantly, develop trust. Even if you do present your ideas to a team, it’s sometimes not the best foot to start off on. Jumping into the deep end doesn’t typically work well in the dating world, and it likely won’t in the business world either! How will you know if you can truly work together effectively if you’ve barely even spoken?

They only allow for a one-way exchange of ideas

There’s a reason why there’s no “i” in team, and creative ideas are best dreamt up when there’s a two-way (idea) street.

RFPs often put the cart before the horse and skip the “why” to swan dive into the “how.” When agencies start working with a client, typically there’s a kick-off call where a company really helps an agency understand their business and their “why.” Better yet, most times when you start a campaign, or heck, any work for your client, you have a conversation about it and you talk through steps and ideas along the way. This is something that RFPs really don’t leave room for–leading to assumptions being made on the part of agencies and potentially wasted time and ideas (more on that below).

Plus, with RFPs agencies are giving the business exactly what they ask for. While this doesn’t sound like a bad thing, that can mean there’s a missed opportunity to show clients what makes your agency truly special.

They don’t necessarily address the root of the problem

With the conversational and relationship-building elements missing from the RFP process, it can be tough to understand a potential client’s goals or gather if they even know what their goals are. Who knows, perhaps the list of requirements they’ve outlined in the RFP may not even lead to the best outcome or be the solution they think they need. Often, those in charge of the RFP process may not have enough expertise in your area of specialty to ask for the right info in the RFP in the first place. For example, does a US-based Marketing Director necessarily know how global Public Relations works? Or better yet, what the UK Public Relations landscape is like for instance?

Agencies can only do the best with the information they have from an RFP and answer the burning questions outlined (often with word limits) even if they don’t really solve the problem at hand. 

They take a ton of non-billable time

We all know that time is money, and perhaps the biggest pain point with RFPs is that they can take a ton of blood, sweat, and tears to put together. They take time, effort (and maybe some tears too) to execute. For smaller agencies in particular, you really have to evaluate if the time spent putting together an RFP will be worth the return. With the extra meetings, brainstorms, planning, and seemingly endless proofreads that go into RFPs on top of existing client work, it can be tough on teams that run lean and don’t have a dedicated proposal writer.

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When you consider the fact that there is no guarantee you’ll get an account, why should billable client work suffer? Even if you do win the account (woo-hoo!), long-term plans presented in RFPs often have to be reworked anyway when new details come up. And don’t we know that client plans can change–rapidly!

To put it into dollars and sense (see what we did there?), author and TEDX speaker Cal Harrison reports that in Canada alone $5 billion is wasted on RFP responses each year, so just imagine what that means for the US or Europe?—yikes.

The pros of RFPs 

They can be a solid starting point

Emphasis on starting point. When used as such, RFPs can be a good way for companies to open the door and start conversations with agencies. Companies that use RFPs as a starting point rather than a means to an end, can make RFPs beneficial to both parties. RFPs can be used to make sure you’re on the same page and ready for a deeper conversation. And forget about the million page document— RFPs can even be done in the form of a one-pager paired with (let’s not forget!), a real in-person or online chat, too. This way, no one’s time is wasted with a hardcore proposal—that, let’s face it, may not even be read cover to cover—before you even know if you’re the perfect pair.

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They can help level the playing field

When the ask is crystal clear and all agencies responding to it do so with the parameters given (format, timeline, etc.), in theory, it can make it easier to decide which agency to go with. The thought behind this is that an RFP can make agencies that are vastly different, more comparable since they provide agencies with the exact same request.

They can be ideal in multiple stakeholder situations

Similar to above, in these cases, RFPs can be beneficial because all the details outlining the ask are clearly identified and out on the table for stakeholders to see. With a process that is defined and well documented, it can be easier to get a whole bunch of stakeholders (with a whole bunch of opinions and busy schedules to boot) to agree on everything in one shot—a plan, and a budget.

Is an RFP right for your agency?

While it may look like the cons outweigh the pros, what it really comes down to is if an RFP is right for your agency and the stage your business is in now. A larger, more established agency with a team dedicated to proposal writing will have the hours to spare on an RFP, whereas an up-and-coming boutique agency with a full client roster may not.

All in all, whether you love them or hate them, one thing’s for sure–it may not be the end of RFPs, but soon enough, it may be the end of RFPs as we know them. In an era where agencies are far from traditional and increasingly specialized, a single document may no longer be enough to provide all of the info needed to find a strategic partner. This alone has many industry insiders asking for the traditional RFP process to evolve.

In the meantime, agencies and agency owners can and should be a part of the solution and evolution of RFPs. Start by looking at how to best pitch yourself to businesses. If your agency responds to RFPs, maybe you set some parameters around only leveraging proposals that really resonate with you and your team versus responding to them like it's your full-time job.

If a potential client is interested in working with you, perhaps focus on projects that let you “get your feet wet” first, and offer to execute a smaller project or campaign versus a year-long contract right off the bat. This way, you can have your work do the talking and make some revenue, too.

No matter what you do, know that your team is worthy of a true partnership and avoid anything that makes you feel even remotely close to a transaction. We’re all about working together, beautifully after all! 

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