RFPs don’t have to suck.

Here’s how to make them great.

Bill Barbot
Jul 20, 2017 · 7 min read

More effort isn’t likely to get you better output.

Responding to an RFP takes a lot of work, as does assembling one in the first place. On average, each responding firm invests between 25 and 40 hours in responding to an RFP, between acknowledging intent to bid, involving a team of specialists to assemble questions, then writing and delivering a response. Certain rules-intensive processes or particularly complex responses can easily consume a hundred hours or more. Add time for pitching, follow-up questions, and your and your own team’s time to manage and participate in the process, and we’re easily in the range of hundreds of hours invested.

Say a little less … and a little more.

The best digital agencies will make the best product for you, your organization, and your audience when they have freedom to imagine solutions to your plainly stated problems. Using an RFP to painstakingly detail how they should solve your problem deprives you of the opportunity to see how respondents think creatively and differently about the solution. With too much detail, you’re giving them the checklist, but these people are experts at knowing what should go on the checklist. Provide fewer specific output requirements and instead focus on telling prospective partners what your biggest challenges are — why you’re issuing this RFP in the first place. Focus on your desired outcomes, not the outputs (I know, wordplay, groan).

State your budget.

Here’s another truth: Making prospective partners guess what you’ve got doesn’t get you a better deal. Naturally, there are some unscrupulous agencies who will grow the scope to fit what you have available, but most agencies who care about their reputation (i.e., most agencies) will instead look to optimize their approach for your available budget.

Use your network.

You’ve got friends — use them. As you well know, the social and public sector communities love to compare notes. The best way to make a shortlist of partners to consider for your digital work is to find out who has provided great service and great work to people whose opinions you trust. Googling “web design agency” will get you a list of agencies who worked hardest to make sure their names show up on the first results page, not the agencies that are best aligned with your values and your needs.

Interview agencies like you’d interview a new hire.

Agencies are not vendors. Vendors sell the same product at different prices. Think Amazon and Zappos. They both sell Converse Chuck Taylors: exact same product, but who’s got the better price, return policy, color selection? You don’t need a conversation with Amazon and Zappos to make your choice, you just need data.

Kick the tires with a lower-risk project.

Many organizations wait until their full site redesign to write an RFP and start shopping for partners. That’s like getting married before you’ve even gone on a date. If you’re a typical social sector or government organization, you knew a redesign of your main site was needed about four years before the organizational willpower and funding showed up. When possible, find little projects — microsites, donation campaigns, annual reports, data visualizations, email template redesigns — and use them to test out working styles, values alignment, quality, and personalities of multiple agency partners. Gamble with $10k, not your twice-a-decade six-figure redesign budget.

The bottom line:

Choosing a creative agency based on their response to your RFP is like choosing a spouse based on their Tinder profile. Sometimes you get lucky and the dark-haired, sushi-lover with the clever username is the man of your dreams. Most of the time, you may have checked all the right boxes and still end up married to a mountain gorilla that likes raw snails.


We are a creative digital agency built to fight for clients and causes we believe in.

Bill Barbot

Written by

Co-Founder, President, and Captain of Industry @threespot



We are a creative digital agency built to fight for clients and causes we believe in.