Part 1: The Problem With the Way Businesses RFP

Overheard in every type of service agency in this country:

“This RFP is horsesh*t!”

“They didn’t provide a budget. Hope they’re cool with a few million.”

“Oh, the deadline to respond is tomorrow. That’ll give me time to pump out some boilerplate garbage.”

Businesses have been butchering RFPs for way too long. Selecting the right agency is hard. Selecting one by issuing a request filled with 10 pages of verbal diarrhea is harder.

But it’s not the business’s fault. Agencies understand. For years, this bastardized RFP process has been accepted as the standard protocol. And agencies have become used to it (check out this post by Brand Constructors, or this post on a Request for Pain).

Today’s RFP process goes a little something like this (ugh, we’re nauseous already): Some clueless CEO decides to rebrand. He tosses the responsibility onto a CMO, who in turn dumps it all over a marketing director, who says to a super-junior associate: “Put out a RFP. You know…”

So it begins. A 10-page document filled with mindless dribble of what the company is looking for in a so-called branding agency is churned out in a matter of a few hours – tops. Because the CEO, CMO et al, put in as much thought and care into this as they do their morning bowel movements. This is such a “high priority” that our super-junior associate sets a quick deadline to reflect that.

“Send all responses to no later than noon Friday.”

It’s Wednesday.

“Gee,” the recipient agency thinks. “That was super nice of them to give me all this extra time to pull together a compelling, thoughtful proposal.” (It’s sarcasm, dude.)

The RFP has been sent to no less than 20, no more than 400 agencies. Some are selected based on name, others on location, but most from a Google search. And then there’s a friend-of-a-friend’s recommendation because she read about them one time in a story about a Kardashian clothing line.

The sender doesn’t bother to research extensively. “It’s an agency’s job to impress me.” Never mind the fact they just sent an RFP to an agency that doesn’t do branding work. Or one with a minimum retainer of $50K per month when the total budget is $5k.

Ah. The email is out. Time to kick back.

Our hypothetical assistant’s inbox will be flooded immediately. His vague, lacking-in-critical-information RFP paid off! But alas, the jubilation is over quickly. A look at the first few rushed proposals will tell: An RFP given the same thought as the aforementioned bowel movement produced a bunch of template, plug-and-play proposals. Approximately 20 proposals later, a meeting is called.

Everyone shows. For the cronuts. No less than 20 proposals are dropped on the table. The CEO walks out. Same for that CMO. They aren’t going to deal with the filing cabinet of paper in front of them. The assistant now narrows down a pile of proposals that are all basically the same. Three weeks later, he whittles it to five.

But some straggler proposals came in during this time and they are game changers. Ugh, it’s back to eight.

Three of the changers, however, are eliminated for missing the deadline – albeit they are the only agencies that bothered to research and think about their proposals critically. Oh well. Sucks to suck! Back to five.

Two weeks later, three new execs are inserted into the RFP process…with three new opinions. Back to eight.

The whole collective collectively decides none of the proposals are too good. Frustration sets in.

Another few weeks goes by.

By now, most of the agencies that replied to your RFP have forgotten all about you. The assistant is told to follow up with one random (“I know a guy there”) agency to ask additional questions. Nobody has a clue who the hell he is or what he’s calling about. Their client roster is full anyhow.

“Ah, screw it. There’s a small shop down the street that once did some ad work for us once. Let’s just go with them.”

Congratulations are in order! The group has come to an informed, strategic decision (yeah, right).

A check is cut. And all’s good. Until it isn’t. Turns out this team’s “strategic decision” hasn’t worked out so well…and now they are locked into a contract and out $5,000 bucks.

There’s a lesson in here: The current RFP process really, really sucks.

Businesses, agencies love you. They want your business. You’re the reason their doors are open. And these agencies are damn good at what they do. They aren’t blaming you. Hell, they are part of the RFP problem (don’t worry, we’ll get to that in part two of this post).

But let’s all agree this system is broken.

They say recognizing you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Check. Now here’s your solution: Agency Geek.

Geeks, out.


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