Let’s get this basic truth out of the way first: I hate RFPs. And I know that a lot of proverbial ink has been spilled on this topic (in business outlets, by other agencies, in Ted talks, in even more business outlets…). The internet doesn’t need another self-serving explanation for why the RFP process is bad for agencies — that message has been repeatedly sent and received.
But as an agency owner who works exclusively with organizations who fight for positive change and the common good, what I really struggle with is that RFPs are bad for the client. I want the foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies that I value and work for to make sound, efficient digital investments so that they have more money to invest in the causes and communities they serve. Watching my social and public sector clients dump hours of thought and effort into managing an RFP process that won’t deliver the most important truths about their potential digital partners is frankly heartbreaking.
But the ongoing primacy of the RFP is just one of many things about the landscape of digital projects that I don’t like but refuse to be stuck with as-is. So, channeling my clients who always have to do more with less and adapt to situations outside their control, I’d like to propose a few ways that we can make the process better for us all.
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.
Straight truth: all of this effort is not going to guarantee you a positive outcome any more than choosing a partner without one would. In fact, it’s often more likely to net you a negative outcome, because the best proposal writer and the best agency for the job are often not the same. In most processes where you’ve interviewed your staff, surveyed the landscape, pled with your board for funding, and painstakingly enumerated a laundry list of needs in your RFP, that laundry list will become little more than a litany of restrictions and boundaries in your relationship with your chosen creative partner. Most successful digital strategists got into this business because they are bad at coloring inside the lines. They don’t do their best creative work without flexibility or the ability to reimagine solutions to solve your problems.
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).
It really comes down to knowing what you know, and knowing what you don’t know. You are an expert in your organization and your organization’s business. Use that expertise to clearly articulate the business problem you are trying to solve, and let agency partners bring their expertise in strategic, creative, digital communications to the table by proposing a solution. Good agencies and digital strategists love to solve problems. Comparing different agencies’ approaches, personalities, and solutions will give you far more meaningful factors for differentiating among them than a stack of identical proposals all checking the same boxes at sometimes only nominally different price points.
At Threespot, we start our relationship with prospective clients with the strategy: by talking about brand, audience, business objectives, and infrastructure, not form builders, Luminate integrations, or numbers of templates. Those details are trivial compared to preserving the integrity of your brand, building trusting relationships with your audiences, and meeting the needs of your internal stakeholders. The best final products come out of processes that start with the big picture and a simple statement of the problems. Set yourself up for success by running your RFP process accordingly.
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.
By sharing your budget (or, at least, your ballpark range), you’ll more likely get responses that are sensitive to your means and among them, present an interesting contrast in how best to apply your available funds toward the work. Two responses allocating the same budget in different ways gives you far more valuable information than two responses that come in significantly over- or under-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.
Need a new website? Ask a peer who just finished a massive redesign what they did and did not enjoy about working with their agency partner. Looking to develop an app? Have a conversation with someone who just launched one about how their agency took them from concept to final product, and who will shoot straight about the bumps they encountered along the way. Your friends and peers, who know what you like and what you are or should be looking for, are a treasure trove. Communities like The Progressive Exchange, NTEN, and The Communications Network thrive on sharing this kind of intelligence.
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.
Agencies are people, and you’re buying a relationship with those people. If you pick them on the basis of a box-checking exercise, or worse, on price, you are killing the human relationship that makes creative work sing. Take the time you might have spent assembling an exhaustive checklist of requirements and allocate it to some long conversations with agencies your peers have recommended. These are people you’ll be working with regularly and trusting with your organization’s online reputation — spend time getting to know them, their outlook, and their process. It will provide invaluable insight into how your project will play out, and can eliminate a lot of heartache and frustration down the road.
Consider conducting these conversations or interviews before you even write your RFP. Getting the perspective of a couple of digital experts on your business problem at the beginning of the process will help make the whole exercise much more likely to net you valuable proposals and the right partner.
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.
If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: If you must RFP your creative digital project — and we know that many of you must — do it with eyes wide open. Write your RFP to make the process work best for you, your organization, and the audiences you’re engaging. Your staff, your stakeholders, and your creative partners will thank you for it, and you’ll get a far better product as a result.
Special thanks to Christopher Montwill, Threespot’s design director, for designing the graphics in this post.