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The end of the agency RFP era

Bob Wheatley
The end of the agency RFP era Bob Wheatley

Perhaps one of the most significant relationship stories in business was devised at the dawn of the new marketing and media communications era in the 1950s. It is the agency/client relationship. For the most part in consumer product categories, one does not exist without the other. Yet the path by which agency and clients come together remains mired in a process that misses some important beats in the inevitable dynamic that will take place once both unite. Agency and client marriages are forged on a performance stage; literally, a form of business theater focused on diagnosis, followed by remedy -- a sort of "can-you-solve-this" challenge game.

Yet in the end, client-side decision makers will confess more often than not that the real reason an agency was chosen had more to do with chemistry and trust than the substance of the creative "pitch." What's going on here is acknowledgement that this truly is a marriage and you want to be doing business with people you like and believe in. Ironically, the common method of finding and picking a PR firm resembles speed dating more than the deep dive needed to determine if the fit will still be strong six months into the new relationship.

Old world RFP
Requests for proposals (RFPs) are at once clinical, methodical, and perhaps also comfortable because of the timeworn path they've been on. Here's the game as routinely played: Client invites a field of 10 to 15 firms to complete a questionnaire. In some cases this is followed by a capabilities presentation. The winnowing continues when a short list receives a document outlining a business problem that needs solving. A verbal download might be included to convey the essence of the brand's position. The show begins in earnest a month or so later when the combatants arrive to unveil their understanding and ideas in 120 minutes of show time.

Somewhere in here the client gets a sense of what's laid out in front of them. Did the agencies discern their needs properly, listen intently, and solve the problem correctly? Maybe, but in this game of inches, it will inevitably come down to gut feelings and instincts about people. It goes without saying the process is also time consuming, lengthy, and perhaps flawed in some serious ways. All agencies have capabilities. The big firms array their office networks and subsidiaries. The smaller ones tout their talent and senior management involvement.

The digital age has opened an entirely new door into the soul of an agency. The depth of intellectual property and thinking found on many agency websites is truly remarkable. In the relative comfort of an office, client-side decision makers can obtain a 360-degree picture of what an agency thinks it is on the planet to accomplish. More often than not, articles written by senior members are also posted for review, offering a glimpse into the agency's thinking, methodologies, and point of view. If a blog exists, you can subscribe to this ongoing display of intellectual property and further understand what's going on in the minds of those who run the place.

RFMs (requests for meetings): A better path
So with all of this information available, is it time to rethink the process upon which we base agency selection decisions? Can we bypass a lot of the procedure that simply regurgitates what's already online? Is the "here's-my-problem-solve-it" method really a good way to assess the agency's collective brains? Business problems are usually not solved by outsiders with limited exposure and experience to a company's plans, processes, issues, priorities, and goals.

Meet with the agencies you're interested in. Have a conversation about your business, brand, or category. I know of no self-respecting agency that won't come to the table prepared with a thought or two about your challenges. You've seen their website and looked at the case studies. What questions do you have? Are you worried about some potential weaknesses or gaps in areas you think will be important down the line? Bring it up. Get it on the table. Talk to each other.

Don't stop there. Have others in your organization chat with them too. See how those conversations transpire and find out how other levels of your tea feel about the personalities and potential fit. Have dinner with each other. Some social time outside of the office will help reveal the people behind the resumes and get everyone talking with each other on a deeper level. Do you share interests and common ideas? Do you see the big- and little-picture issues through the same lens? Will you get along well?

The formality of a 120-minute dog and pony show does not facilitate this interaction. It is a beauty pageant, and for all the fun of witnessing five or six attempts to diagnose and cure your problems, isn't human interaction at the core of your decision? It will be obvious quickly if the right chemistry exists and if there is a sense of collegial behavior and thinking that will serve both parties well in the future.

This may feel less scientific in some ways, but you can truly question the science of RFPs and whether or not the information they give you is what you need to make a good marriage. In the end, it is the face-to-face conversations and interactions in a series of meetings, both on and off campus, that will help determine the best combination with less angst and uncertainty for everyone involved.

Bob Wheatley is CEO of Wheatley & Timmons.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Kevin Doohan

2009, January 27

I'm a client and I LOVE this concept. RFPs are a waste of time on both sides. Next time I do this (don't call me people, no plans to do so in the short term), I am going to do RFMs with additional rigor/structure around pricing and service level conversations. No need to do the whole case study thing and rounds of creative, etc.

Commenter: David Wiggs

2009, January 19

Words of wisdom, Bob. Regardless of what agencies say in an RFP or how smart your agency is at solving the client's marketing problem; if you can't sit in a room together and have a conversation,then you don't have a relationship based on give and take and mutual respect--you have, at best a contract. And that's no basis for collaborative problem solving.

David Wiggs

Commenter: Joseph "Giuseppe" Zuccaro

2009, January 16


sorry, that is a well intended but naïve dream. The subjective way of selecting agencies based on "chemistry and human interaction" may occur before, after or while objective tools like RFPs have been employed. And subjective scoring can be included with objective scoring. However there are valid reasons that RFPs have evolved for enterprises with complex buying challenges.

Government agencies, public companies, and any entity with responsible governance require a process that protects the taxpayers, investors, or simply the budget. While the process admittedly can slow down progress and marketing opportunities can be missed, a vendor should still show that behind the creative "genius" it may have is a disciplined methodology and stability that will optimize results for the client. And the RFP can show that. In a lot of respect, RFPs can separate the men and women from the boys and girls.

Yes, some companies don't have a clue how to construct a good RFP and then make objective decisions based what may actually be valid, award-worthy responses. Maybe this process can be automated in the future with some sort of artificlal intellgence. But a post decision de-briefing can also help a losing agency figure out how to position itself better for future awards.

Additionally, ask yourself - if an RFP stinks, could that be an indicator whether the client is truly qualified or not? Perhaps. If there are too many hoops to jump through, could this be a foreshadowing of client behavior after the award?

If a client thinks your relationship is worth having but their hands are tied to the process, they still may have wiggle room to "steer" you through the process so you are in the lead. This happens all the time.

As someone who has responded to hundreds of RFPS over the years, I haven't particularly enjoyed the all-nighters and rejections. But the wins have been great. And earned.

Commenter: David Kutcher

2009, January 16

RFPs provide a solution and a means for an organization to get apples to apples competitive bids. They allow organizations to get specific answers to specific questions (if the RFP was written well) structured in a way that enables decision makers to hopefully see through the slick sales pitches and evaluate companies and their proposals on their merit. Based on the growth of a site I run, the RFP Database at http://www.rfpdb.com, the number of RFPs being added every week, and the numbers of users we have registering every day to gain access to these projects, I don't think RFPs are going the way of the dodo any time soon. RFPs might be a crude tool, and an unemotional tool, but just like a college application without an essay or without a personal interview, they provide you with an unemotional and unbiased "play it by the numbers" approach to procurement.

Commenter: Tom Pick

2009, January 16

It almost sounds as if you are placing emotion above objective evaluation when selecting a marketing agency, though I'm sure that isn't your intent. Of course, chemistry (emotion) plays a role in any b2b purchase decision, but the foundation of the choice should have more substance.

Every agency has success stories, but you want one that has successes relevant to your business. Every agency has (or should have) some point of unique differentiation; you want one with a difference that's meaningful to you. Ditto for their approach, but you get the idea.