When should you decline an RFP?

Pitching for business is a necessary evil. Every one of us on the agency side of the fence has gone through the contrasting emotions of the pitch process. Joy at being invited. Fatigue coupled with excitement when preparing. Trepidation when delivering. And then either ecstasy or misery when getting the decision. So, with such a roller coaster of emotions – how should agencies decide on when to pitch? For many, this hinges on the first step – the nature or style of the RFP.

These three small letters often strike fear into the minds of business development people the world over. When that email drops and once the initial burst of joy at receiving it passes, the reality of processing the opportunity begins. In truth, RFPs are a completely necessary step in appointing a new agency partner. No sane business should scrimp on the process of finding a new agency. It’s a business-critical decision and hopefully a long term one at that.

But is the RFP worth responding to? More and more agencies are taking a stand and refusing to participate. So how should agencies weigh up the opportunity? Are RFPs a waste of time? What makes for a good or bad RFP? These are some of the questions that featured in a recent lengthy debate string on LinkedIn in a post started by Parry Headrick, Founder of US firm Crackle PR. The debate highlighted a growing movement of antipathy toward the RFP from the worldwide agency community.

The overriding sentiment centred on the quality of RFPs that are routinely issued by large corporates looking for new agencies. In my experience, there are two broad categories of RFPs. Those that are developed, distributed, and issued by procurement departments. And then those that are written, managed, and owned by communications or marketing departments. In both cases, the quality of RFP dictates much of the decision on whether to pitch or not.

Reading through the comments on Parry’s post, there are clear trends to pull out. RFPs that are ambiguous, templated or written as it the organisation is purchasing widgets are best avoided. Those that contain sparse background, and which offer no opportunity through the process to participate in a Q&A with the actual individual or team that would be the day-to-day contacts should be treated carefully. If you can’t interrogate the brief, how can in-house teams really assess the knowledge and capability of the agency that at the end of the process might become their strategic partner?

The role of procurement is clearly contentious. 

Any agency selection process that is dictated by procurement; which is run by procurement without involvement from the client team; or which insists on irrelevant selection criteria or pricing information, must be rejected. But – where procurement becomes a partner to the process and where specialist marketing procurement teams get involved, then the experience is often wholly different. I’ve seen both sides of this and have greatly benefited from building tight relationships with procurement professionals that have served my agency well once the account is won. As Chaim Haas, Head of Innovation Communications at Bloomberg LP says: “They’re there to help negotiate the contract, not decide which agency gets hired.”

So, does this all point to a blanket refusal of the agency community to reject RFPs? Absolutely not in my opinion. As with everything, there are both sides to the argument. And it’s only being armed with the facts and by using one’s experience can decisions on whether to respond or not can be made. Back in 2001, my agency at the time was invited to the IBM Global RFP. We were rank outsiders, a tech comms firm that thought big, but which didn’t tick all the boxes. Conventional wisdom says we should have walked away (heads high at being invited). But we went for it. We committed to winning it. We invested. We took risks. And at the end of a long process, we were one of three agencies IBM consolidated with. It changed the agency’s future.

RFPs serve a purpose. They are one step in the process of appointing a new agency partner. Walk away when it doesn’t feel right but don’t use blinkers when looking at the opportunity

Andy West is an advisor to fast growth agencies in the creative industries, find him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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