The Agony and Ecstasy of the RFP (Column)

The RFP process isn’t going away, but it should be improved Carol Levine is co-founder and managing partner of Energi PR* in Montreal and immediate past chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms *Disclaimer: Going public with an opinion piece on RFPs is risky; these are my personal views and not necessarily those […]

The RFP process isn’t going away, but it should be improved

Carol Levine is co-founder and managing partner of Energi PR* in Montreal and immediate past chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms

*Disclaimer: Going public with an opinion piece on RFPs is risky; these are my personal views and not necessarily those of Energi PR.

Despite the moments of pure joy or bruised ego that I might admit to, winning new clients is the lifeblood of PR agencies, and all firms worth their salt take this seriously. Having won and lost over a colourful career, what I struggle with is not the RFP process, but how it often fails to accomplish its goal.

The RFP has been defined as a process bringing structure to the procurement decision, allowing the risks and benefits to be identified clearly upfront. The briefing typically reflects the client’s strategy and business objectives and provides detailed insight so that suppliers can offer a matching perspective. Therefore, in principle, the RFP requires the company to specify what it proposes to purchase, alerts suppliers that the selection process is competitive, and will generally follow a structured evaluation and selection procedure so that an organization can demonstrate impartiality. It’s wishful thinking.

I include a definition because in the world I live in RFPs have taken on a life of their own, consuming vast amounts of time and effort on both sides of the equation. I find it hard to accept that the process could take much credit for a successful client/agency relationship.

Finding the right PR partner might be easier if we considered the end game and looked at how successful businesspeople make really important decisions. They use research, word of mouth, track record, reputation, references or, more often than not, chemistry and gut. As for budget, if you pick the firm aligned to your corporate culture and their understanding of your business, I’d venture you’ll arrive at a mutually satisfactory budget, assuming your expectations are reasonable.

Is approaching 15 firms, interviewing eight and getting four to pitch with full-blown plans and granular budgets the way to go? Are you looking for a specific program to implement, or a team that can generate strategic, transformational concepts that become even better after getting to know you? It’s true that corporate governance demands a stringent procurement process and most of the PR agency heads I know can live with that for large, complex, annual or multi-year mandates. But, as I observe, the RFP is mostly overused or poorly developed, both compromising effectiveness.

RFP BEST PRACTICES FOR CLIENTS

• Be specific. Tell us what you want and what’s important. True, we are vendors, but we are generally honest people.

• Be discerning—it’s quality that counts. Sending the RFP to 20 firms tells us you’re unclear about what you need. The more you know about the firms before you invite them, the happier everyone is.

• Budget matters. No purpose is served if you get ideas costing 10 times what you have to spend. Firms can be awfully creative if they know the budget, even if it is not huge. Likely they’ll provide incremental ideas to whet your appetite.

• Be as generous with your time as the agencies are with theirs. Submissions made by email are void of the human element, something fundamental in a trusted relationship. Wherever possible, meet the agencies and let them present in person. This is easier to manage with only a few pitching.

• Provide feedback. It is hard to deliver bad news, but honest feedback is constructive. For the RFP system to work, agencies need to believe that it is a worthwhile exercise. Tell us who is pitching. I fail to see the downside of knowing the competition. Are we on a level playing field? Let us make an educated decision on whether to respond.

• Mutual respect is key. PR agencies work hard to present their credentials and recommendations. If you have no intent on replacing the incumbent, sending an RFP is not the way to shake up your current agency or fair to those you are inviting.

WHAT AGENCIES THINK ABOUT

• Should we participate? While getting new business is a must, we are cautious about where to devote our resources. We all have criteria to evaluate the risk/benefit of participating in a pitch and pay attention to how the RFP is written.

• Is the timeframe reasonable? Cynicism comes from having just a few days to prepare the deck, then waiting months for a response.

• Has this client worked with PR firms before? Do they have reasonable expectations? Many previous failed agency relationships is a red flag.

• When an RFP looks like a cattle call, interest will likely wane.

• Is the RFP bona fide? Is it intended to get the incumbent back on track? Is it an attempt to get ideas that will be implemented internally? Is it likely to result in a mandate?

• Does the RFP process guarantee that what you see is what you’ll get? Personally, I favour an informal meeting as a first step where it becomes abundantly clear as to first impressions and that gnawing question “Can/do we want to work with these folks?”

While it’s no secret that RFPs signify a huge investment of time and money across the board, they are not likely to disappear anytime soon and most agencies have developed their own thoughtful screening processes to improve the win/loss ratio. I am all for improving the process and promoting a best practice RFP that satisfies clients and agencies alike. After all, we want to be good business partners and have a little fun together.

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