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.