By Ben Zimmerman, President at Media Design Group.
If you’ve been in advertising for any amount of time, you’ve most likely been involved in the request for proposal (RFP) process in some capacity. Whether you were consolidating case studies to showcase your agency’s experience to prospects or proofreading 75 pages for the fifth time, you’re familiar with how time-consuming this process can get.
Traditionally, the RFP has been the cornerstone of the procurement process for big-ticket deals in the advertising world. Issuing an RFP allows prospective clients to shop around for new agencies in the form of a formalized questionnaire procedure. By answering these questions or following a specific prompt, RFPs also allow interested stakeholders to provide a prospective client with an overview of their features, price and competitive advantages. From there, top-scoring agencies are selected to provide a negotiation or submit bids.
In theory, RFPs can be advantageous for agencies and clients. However, as almost anyone that’s ever participated in an RFP will tell you, the process is a time suck at best and a complete waste of time at worst. The practice is manual and tedious for both buyers and sellers, spanning across job functions and departments, involving numerous stakeholders and causing many headaches.
And because time is money, the process ends up being expensive — some estimate it can cost a buyer up to $3,018 per campaign. And while the process worked for big companies pitching big clients with big budgets in the traditional era of advertising, times are different.
The RFP process falls short for so many digital media agencies.
As the industry has grown by leaps and bounds, and the work we do has gotten increasingly specialized, the way that businesses buy and sell advertisements has all but changed. Budgets and planning cycles run the gamut. Platforms and mediums are widespread and ever-changing. And the information that RFPs request — team bios, client lists, recent wins, examples of work, strategic approaches and more — just scratches the surface of an agency’s true personality.
The RFP as we’ve come to know it, simply does not provide a prospect enough information about an agency’s capabilities. It may provide an overview of their previous accomplishments. But who wants to be stuck in the past? Digital media isn’t a beauty contest. Nor is it always about replicating past successes and approaches. Forward-thinking agencies must anticipate trends and react to roadblocks. They must create new strategies. And your ability as an agency is often contingent on embracing the future — and knowing your client’s needs as they arise.
Most importantly, the RFP ignores the nimble small agencies that are giving the heavy hitters a run for their money. Some of the smartest people I know have set out on their own and started their own niche agencies that focus on a specific subset of digital advertising. If a buyer were to follow the traditional RFP process, these hyper-focused ventures would be completely swept under the rug and ignored for larger, well-known agencies that may deliver inferior results.
It’s often up to you as an agency to decide whether you’re going to respond to RFPs. I’ve known some business owners who refuse to throw their hats into the ring. Instead, they focus their time and money on driving client results and putting together exemplary case studies or testimonials to showcase their efforts. While RFPs are a one-off process tailored around a specific client, case studies and testimonials can be repurposed on your website and in your sales process for months — sometimes years — and can be used to highlight a certain industry, specialty or approach.
Alternatives To The RFP
Getting the true personality of an agency, especially those eccentric, energetic small agencies, is possible without the formalized RFP process. As a simple suggestion, word of mouth can work wonders — and external referrals from your network can help a client vet their options. By asking industry connections for a vendor suggestion, businesses can save time and money and instead focus their efforts on execution.
If a client would rather try before they buy, they can consider engaging a few agencies with a sample project. Rather than relying on half-baked spec work, however, it’s important they pay a flat and fair price for a small project and have the agency talk through their reasoning. This discovery process not only shows an agency’s real-world creative capabilities, but it also gives them a chance to discuss their strategic approach — something that an RFP may not account for. Ultimately, this test can showcase if there’s working chemistry between the two parties involved and give each other a taste of what working together would be like.
It’s time to reevaluate how we as agency owners pitch our services to prospects. But it’s equally important for our clients to remain flexible and open-minded about their options. Ultimately, the RFP process is not conducive to the modern, digital ad agencies because these companies are changing as we speak. Does it still work for traditional shops that produce big-budget ads for high-profile corporate conglomerates on traditional formats? Sure, it may. But as the digital media landscape continues to evolve at a rapid clip, the RFP has failed to catch up.