RFP: Request For Perplexity



It’s tough not knowing. As you craft the response to an RFP (request for proposal) on behalf of the creative agency or event-management firm, you wonder if you are competing on a level playing field.

Sure it’s sweet when you know. You’re told by the branding agency that the potential client has let them know on the sly the job will be theirs. The RFP process is a mere formality.

You know that a monkey banging away on a keyboard could snag the assignment for the agency, with lots of design deliverables and juicy billing hours. Still, you craft a strong response, just in case  . . .

But there are the times you don’t know if it’s a fair or stacked contest. Perhaps the incumbent is sitting pretty and you don’t have chance from the get-go. You spend  hours outlining the qualifications of the agency, crafting their bona fides so they stand out from their competition.

Yes, they have the experience, the qualifications and the capabilities to handle the creative work with distinction. Even so, they don’t make the short list.

You send words into the void.

The Truth Isn’t Self-Evident
But the only way forward is to believe the process is on the up and up. So you read the dozens of pages of the RFP and make sure that every damn question is answered. Sometimes a query doesn’t make sense or really apply to you. Sometimes the bureaucratic client seems to ask for the same information again and again.

Some agencies decide not to answer specific questions but to do a general response that they hope covers everything. They’ll show lots of their work and believe that its obvious excellence will win them the job. But this approach depends on judges who can recognize good work when they see it.

Look at the RFP company or organization’s existing design and branding. Is it overwhelmingly mediocre? If so, the good news is that you can certainly do better. The bad is that the client may not know kick-ass when it’s presented to them.

Know the Score
Marketing types want to understand the strategy behind the work. They want to see how the agency thinks and problem solves. They want to see that they’ve successfully dealt with similar clients, and that they have the capabilities and will to handle the work that comes their way.

They need good, clear writing.

The client may have a set scoring system for every part of the RFP. So you have to respond to each question and demand for information, preferably in the order that they are asked. Don’t make the evaluators hunt for information.

Find different ways to answer similar questions. Query anything you don’t understand. This makes you look diligent, not stupid.

But Don’t Always Trust the Score
Yes, there are RFPs with meticulous lists of what score each part of the response is worth. While these guidelines are good, they are not always followed.

You remember one RFP for a yearlong agency of record assignment where quoted price was worth only 15 per cent of the final overall evaluation. Qualifications and experience were worth 40 per cent.

So you played up the agency bona fides and impressive work history, and a fair price was quoted. Later you learned the job went to the lowest bidder, who was far less qualified than the rest of the field.

Don’t Be More Corporate Than the Client
Clients hire agencies because they are creative and strategic, not because they are bland and corporate.

You’ve seen some agencies react to the detailed, quasi-legal language of RFPs with even more detailed, eye-watering responses. And you’ve heard evaluators later admit they couldn’t make it through some of the massive agency responses.

The response to an RFP has to show how well the agency can communicate in words. The response needs to stand out in the same way that the agency’s proposed design and branding solutions will.

Be the cutter, not the clutter.

Sigh. Spec Work
Do clients still ask for creative concepts on spec in RFPs? And write in provisions that they get to keep the ideas even if you don’t land the assignment?

Apparently they do.

You feel sorry for the agencies that feel compelled to participate in the process, giving away their only real currency. For a fee, you work with them to present their ideas in the best light.

But you wonder if you are helping or hurting their business.

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