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Seriously, Would You Do This With Your Heart On The Line?

Updated: Apr 10

You have a serious heart condition. You look online for a surgeon. Just any old surgeon, really - because a surgeon is a surgeon is a surgeon, right?

Operation game
Copyright Hasbro.

Then, instead of going to meet them to see if they indeed are heart experts at all, you send them a request for proposal by email, and ask them to outline why they're the best for the job - what they'd do to fix your heart if they got the assignment. You'll judge them on points, naturally, because that's the best way and you're the expert, including, of course, points for how snappy their proposal looks. And the price, you tell the doctor, will weigh heavily in your final decision. Ridiculous right? Because medicine doesn't work that way. Neither does law or accounting or any other profession. If it had to do with your face, like plastic surgery, you'd (hopefully) be very careful to meet the surgeon in person, to see past works, to evaluate their credibility. You surely wouldn't ask for a free facelift first to see if you like it before you buy it. You'd be kicked out of the office before you finished that sentence. Nor would you negotiate rates. You'd pay for quality. It's your face!

So, then, why is this the method when hiring a professional agency to do heart and face surgery on your company or brand? Asking an agency for your free facelift before they get the job is a terrible idea in every way - it's also terribly unfair. Judging anyone on a points system including how snappy the proposal looks is no way to hire any professional. The end result might just be a really botched facelift. It might just stop your heart and take years off of the life of your company.

Here I'm talking about the RFP process, a weird monster someone created for buying rolls of toilet paper that has since been blindly transferred to purchasing professional agency services. Thought about logically, RFPs only makes sense from an exploitive perspective - getting something for nothing. And it creates a terrible dynamic from the beginning. Do we ever value what we get for free? RFPs say: "We don't value what you do. It's a throw away to us. We just want to see how well you can dance. We want to see how shiny your proposal is. And maybe we'll just borrow some ideas from it, while we all enjoy a catered lunch."

I think it's time to destroy the RFP process once and for all. It's a waste of time for clients to put together and vet. It's a waste of time for agencies. It's an unfair process because they are all ultimately arbitrary, or worse. RFPs are made for ordering paperclips and toner and hand-dryers, bulk, discount, everyday supplies, stuff you can discount the huge margins on, not professional, strategic, or creative services. There is a huge difference. And if you don't appreciate that difference, welcome to your paperclip agency. Welcome to your toilet paper results.

If you really want to choose the 'right' agency, visit them. Get to know them in person and evaluate them on past work and present staff. See if they actually have experience in serious heart surgery or facelifts. See if they're excited and passionate about their work and can prove real successes. Talk to current and past clients. Shortlist the ones you really want to work with. Then if you still REALLY need to ask them how they would approach your business or branding strategy, pay them for that, at their rate; don't ask for the Mercedes and offer a little gas money. Don't expect 300 hours worth of work if you're only willing to pay for 10. And respect their intellectual property. Companies are hungry for work, and it's likely they will basically (and sadly) humiliate themselves and degrade their own value just to win your work - if this is the only way to it. Collaboration is a two-way street.

One sobering real-world RFP experience for you - and it wasn't the only time this happened in my 20 years of professional experience.

I recently connected with a former Director of Marketing I know, who once worked for a major city-funded, economic development organization. We'd pitched them on a re-branding strategy once upon a time, and we did a lot of research and creative for the pitch because it was a requirement to participation. It was a big project, so we bit. It was either go all in or don't go at all. Winning it would have meant expanding staff and growing our reputation. We put in three to four full weeks of preparation, probably $40,000 to $50,000 in real unbillable, billable time went into the response. We had to pay staff and take some of them off of other work that could have been making us money or building non-RFP opportunities for the agency. We thought we had a chance, we believed in ourselves, so we went for it. We pitched hard to their team and partners, perhaps 10 people in all in the room that day. We were grilled, we were glared at, over two uncomfortable, judgemental hours. We brought all of our experts to answer their questions, most weren't asked any. More unbillable time. We lost on points, arbitrarily, as points systems always are.

The former Director of Marketing I connected with later was one of the ones in the room on pitch day. She sat right next to me. The day following, someone else we didn't know let us know all of our hard work was for nothing. If you don't win, you lose. We moved on as you have to. A couple of years later, I'm again sitting across a table from this former Director of Marketing, discussing another project that would never come. Just the two of us this time. Out of nowhere, she starts telling me, "confidentially", and I can hardly believe the words she's saying: "I just want you to know something; I thought yours was the best proposal that day, hands down. It was all political. Others wanted someone else to get it. And they did." Wow. - And, by the way, the agency who won, the one some decision-makers in the room wanted to win, also turned out to be the most expensive. Imagine that. So much for sharpening your pencil. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But I was also not very surprised. How can any company grow when those issuing an RFP already don't care about your valuable time and already know who they want to give it to? What good is an RFP process if this is almost always true, corrupted from the start? What good is it at all for anyone? So, before you think you have a 25%, or 10%, or 5% chance, or whatever chance you're giving yourself, assume the chance is less than zero that you will win. Then consider all of the time you need to take to build a decent response. Therein lies the answer: If you can, don't answer RFPs. If you have to, be very, very, very selective; assume the game is rigged already, which it is, and this will further sober up your decision making. RFPs tell you everything you need to know about that potential client who asks for spec strategy, creative or "your best ideas". For free heart surgery and facelifts. People talk a lot about the importance of collaboration from the agency side. Clients sure talk about it. Collaboration matters, people say, fair (lowest) pricing matters, and you'd better be willing to do it. We reserve the right to choose the lowest price bidder (unless it's our buddy, of course), cut you out because of nepotism, and borrow from your response as we see fit. LinkedIn is full of articles written for agencies or creatives, asking them to be more collaborative with clients, to work harder, to jump through more flaming hoops, to compete, because it will help them land that next big thing; and, if not, it will "sharpen them up" for the next opportunity. You only lost because there were 'better' proposals after all. Right? Collaboration should never mean you bend over backwards and break your company, give your precious experience, skills or methods away for free, or discount your prices like some cheap mattress store. Collaboration by definition isn't a one-way street. I sometimes laugh to myself when I see such articles asking agencies to give more, to do more, and to expect less, or nothing at all. What 20 years of experience has taught me is that there are clients out there who will value your work, your time, and your talents. They will pay for quality and results, and reward you for the same. And those are the ones with whom you can actually build a lasting, and profitable, company, brimming with great work, in true collaboration. And they will likely never ask you to respond to an RFP, either.

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