5 Reasons We Won’t Respond to RFPs

Not many things in my industry elicit the degree of anger and frustration as the Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

Yesterday I opened about 10 emails from colleagues at other agencies on this topic.  All of us belong to Counselors Academy,  a group of PR agency owners and top executives. Counselors Academy’s most active members are smaller and midsize companies, not the largest agencies. One of the members, a colleague of mine who owns a boutique agency in Washington, wrote an email to the group describing an RFP fiasco he had just been through and asking how other
agencies handle RFPs. With few exceptions, the consensus was that RFPs are a waste of time and energy and most of my colleagues at the small and midsize agencies refuse to participate in the RFP process unless they have a relationship with  someone in the company or have worked for the company before.

Let me sum up the main reasons:

1. RFPs are often the result of a requirement from company purchasing departments that bids be obtained from several vendors before a purchase is made. More and more over the last 10 or 15 years purchasing departments have been given approval power over PR agency hiring by the corporate communications and marketing departments. The internal marketing or communications team knows already which agency it wants to hire, but puts out the RFP to satisfy the purchasing department. In these situations, the bids are really rigged from the outset and the RFP process is a sham.

2. Many companies just don’t know how to conduct an agency search. Some of them send RFPs in writing to a huge number of agencies without talking to them or screening them in any way first to focus in on a small but appropriate group. Responding to this kind of “cattle call” is a waste of an agency’s time.

3. Some companies that put out RFPs have NO INTENTION of hiring an agency, and use the process to gather ideas to help the in-house communications team.  Of course, nobody admits to this, but it’s pretty obvious when they end up not hiring an agency at all after the RFP process and then start implementing thinly disguised versions of the proposal ideas.

4. Many RFPs ask each agency for a strategic plan to meet the company’s PR needs. However, very, very few RFPs offer to compensate the agencies  for this work.  Law firms aren’t asked to submit their plans for dealing with a company’s legal situation on spec. Doctors charge for their time and expertise when consulted about their treatment opinions. Why should communications companies be expected to give away their intellectual property? I wrote an entire blog post on this subject a couple of years ago. Some in-house marketing and communications executives claim that this is the only way they can separate the good, bad and mediocre. But that isn’t true. A decision can be made by asking for examples of past work and references from clients, holding several interview sessions, and even, if necessary, requesting the agencies for a PR solution to a theoretical situation.

5. As a small public relations company, sometimes we are given an RFP as an alternative type of firm to bigger agencies. The decision-makers will swear up and down that they’re open to selecting the best agency team irrespective of agency size. We’ll be encouraged by the prospective client to participate, the chemistry will be great, we’ll hear compliments on our proposal and be told that we’ve been selected as a finalist. And then we’ll be told that a much larger firm won the business. Sometimes the prospective client will even tell us, “In the end, we just felt more comfortable with a larger agency.” Or, “we love your team but we were afraid of what the CEO would say if we hired a small agency like yours.”  This is shorthand for, “Nobody gets fired for hiring IBM.”

Some of my colleagues will read this and say, “You just have to qualify the lead before you respond to an RFP.” This is true; you do have to ask questions upfront to find out whether your company is a good fit for the prospective client and to try to determine if there is really any chance of winning the business. But unfortunately it’s hard to get honest answers sometimes.  This isn’t just a problem for small PR firms. When I worked for a large multinational, we had the same problem. The thing is, there are more resources at large PR firms than at small firms like mine for pursuing new business. We can’t afford to waste our time on RFPs when experience has shown us that the chance of winning, for one or more of the above reasons, is extremely remote.

I don’t want any of you to think that we don’t want to compete for business. That isn’t the case. We expect and welcome competition. It’s just the bureaucratic and often rigged RFP process that we’ve opted out of.

Lucy Siegel

Read my e-book –  “Public Relations Around the Globe: A Window on International Business Culture”

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11 Responses to “5 Reasons We Won’t Respond to RFPs”

  1. Jeannette Paladino Says:

    Excellent post, Lucy. I agree with the points you made having been on the wrong end of the RFP process too often when I was with a the small NY office of a UK-based PR agency. However, I do have one shining example of where we beat out three other global agencies for the account of a major consulting firm. We worked day and night, because it was a very comprehensive RFP. To this day I’m proud of the masterful presentation we put together.

    We flew to the city where the presentation was being made (at our expense, of course). We knocked their socks off when we ended with a video testimonial from the top editor of Time, Inc. (a good friend of the agency lead). They loved everything we did.

    Waiting on pins and needles — we received the call. We didn’t get the business. They felt safer explaining to the CEO why they hired the brand-name agency. We were crushed. A few days later, we got another call from the consulting firm. They admitted they had made a terrible mistake. The first planning session with their new agency was a disaster. The chemistry was all wrong. When the agency left, the inside PR team looked at each other and said, “We’ve got to go with (my agency).” So we snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat.

    Admittedly, it’s rare when something happens like that. But after all these years, I still bask in the afterglow.

  2. shiramiller Says:

    Good post Lucy, and I think your approach to RFP’s is dead-on in most occasions. But there are exceptions to the rule. the largest client our firm has ever had – one who we are now entering into our fifth year of working together – came from an RFP. While the bid process required tremendous effort, it paid off in the end. the difference is that we were competing with other boutique agencies and not the big guys as my client was savvy enough to want an agent where his business would be highly valued.

  3. Lee Weinstein Says:

    I detest the RFP process for all the reasons you enumerate, Lucy. In most instances it’s a complete waste of time. Our best business has all come referrals and pre-existing relationships. Excellent post!

  4. Mike Paul, the Reputation Doctor Says:

    Finally, someone else said it! Well done. The more we speak truth to power on issues like this the more the transparency will change policy and behavior.

  5. Shelley Pringle Says:

    Great post, Lucy. You took the words right out of my mouth. I’m posting a follow up piece tomorrow so I’ll be sure to tweet you the link.

  6. Devin James, CEO/Founder of the Devin James Group Says:

    Lucy, I would like to send your blog post out to my followers on twitter, FB and use it in my groups on LI. I would also like to email blast it with your permission of course. I think it is very well written, unique and needed. Then I would like to see if we can release a joint post and article to some major publications I work with about this with a M/W/DBE slant because my experiences have been slightly different but similar with respect to how government organizations who are required by law to issue RFPs/competitive solicitations for contracted work exceeding certain dollar amounts say they want minority inclusion, “minority participation is highly encouraged” then in the next paragraph ask that you have 10years experience on that same type of project or ask for a Multi-year past performance evaluation by a major credit bureau which completely eliminates most small and minority owned firms. Not because they arent good but because they haven’t spent the thousands of dollars for the same type of documentation as larger firms. We have great credit, an awesome past performance, tons of references and still get calls like we got today where the gov rep says, “we just felt like the other “larger” agency was a better fit”. Now luckily, we have a team that does nothing but RFPs and have won quite a few this quarter but the topic still needs to be addressed in the mainstream. Let me know of your interest.

    • Bridge Global Strategies Says:

      Hi, James,

      Thanks for your comments on the RFPs post. You are welcome to send it or announce it to anyone, anywhere, as long as you attribute it to me and link to the original post.

      As for doing a joint post with you, thanks, but no thanks. I’ve said what I want to say on the topic…and I’m really busy, as well.

      Again, thanks for your comment – I’m flattered!

      Best regards,

      Lucy Siegel
      President & CEO
      Bridge Global Strategies
      16 West 36th St., 10th Fl., New York, NY 10018
      Tel: 212-583-1043, Ext. 12
      Twitter: @lucysiegel
      Blog: http://bridgebuzz.bridgeny.com
      Founding member, PR Boutiques International

  7. Robert Udowitz Says:

    Sorry to come a bit late to the table, Lucy. A colleague and I started http://www.rfpassociates.net about a year ago to improve the RFP process for both sides. With agency and corporate experiences behind us we agree with all your points and require client’s issuing RFPs to be more transparent, give each agency an equal chance, and not to expect spec work without compensation, among others. The process has become uncontrolled for a host of reasons. We feel it will improve the reputation of the profession if there’s a more unified structure to selecting and hiring a firm – large, small, independent – because it will result in better, more strategic work. We’re working on it, one RFP at a time.

  8. Bridge Global Strategies Says:

    Robert, it’s great that you are taking on this challenging task!

  9. How to find the RIGHT public relations firm and avoid a “cattle call” | Polaris Marketing & PR Says:

    […] you’re not familiar with RFPs or you believe they’re a good approach, read this post from Bridge Global […]

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