Requests for proposals (RFP) have been around for a long time and are still a popular part of procurement, especially among larger companies and organizations. An RFP is designed to solicit multiple proposals using uniform instruction so the buyer is able to compare sellers apples to apples and not apples to oranges. By mandating how the proposal is structured, the company removes some creativity from the proposal process and takes control of the input they receive.
The best RFPs are like briefs, providing goals, objectives and high-level direction for contenders to build from. The worst are like instruction manuals, specifying solutions and mandating processes. There’s nothing wrong with constraints — they lead to great poetry. But, it’s hard to be poetic when constraints turn into restraints.
RFPs are a necessary evil for many ad agencies (along with pitches). It’s disheartening to learn that, according to John Heenan, an agency growth consultant who surveyed 150 marketers, 84% of clients sometimes or definitely have a winner chosen before the pitch is begun. So, even with an RFP and a pitch that involves a dozen or two agencies, most clients have already decided who they want to work with regardless of your efforts. They just need to have agencies go through the motions to clear it with procurement and the CEO.
As an agency matchmaker and former agency owner, I’ve built a business around being the anti-RFP. We provide brand-to-agency matches based on our deep relationships with agencies of many colors, shapes and sizes. So, what’s the solution to the RFP predicament? How should agencies react to RFPs? Run from them? Try to change them? Embrace them as a necessary evil?
Relationships are the answer to RFPs.
Relationships give you the capital to ask for room to customize your RFP response. Relationships can even help you get paid to pitch, rather than investing agency resources into an expensive and competitive dog-and-pony show. Relationships and word-of-mouth are the solution for savvy agencies sick of the same old dance. Many agencies now flat-out refuse to participate in RFPs. For those that do still participate, if they have a relationship in the organization, it’s magical how their submissions can rise to the top.
If you’ve built a strong relationship with the owner of an RFP, you’ll have more freedom to ask questions, clarify and propose using alternate approaches to your proposal. This is the time to discuss where the rules can be bent and even if there’s an opportunity to be paid to pitch. The deeper the relationship you have with the decision maker, the easier it’s going to be to make an ask without hurting your chances.
How can you build relationships to replace RFPs?
If you’re looking to build relationships that replace RFPs, there’s a variety of strategies you can employ. First, you need to connect with people. Many agencies use LinkedIn to connect with and cultivate relationships with prospects, as well as outbound email. You can also attend trade shows and events, join professional organizations and private Facebook groups — you name it.
The key is building meaningful relationships with your connections. You do this first and foremost by positioning yourself as someone they need to know. Establish trust through thought leadership and PR efforts. Then, be helpful. This could come in the form of sending them a relevant whitepaper or leaving a comment on a post they’ve written. Above all, be genuine. For example, remember to text them “happy birthday.” Your intentions count, and prospects can tell if you just want to sell them. The more time you spend in person with the prospect, the better the chances of building a real relationship.
Be proactive about relationship building.
More and more agencies are taking control of their new business pipeline by leveraging word of mouth, content marketing, business development and even outbound sales. Advertising agencies are starting to realize the importance of advertising themselves. No longer waiting on the next RFP with hoops to jump through, these agencies are proactively building relationships so that when an RFP does come up, they’ll automatically be on the short list (or they’ll skip the RFP altogether — I’ve seen it happen).
Focus on relationships, not RFPs. Transactional business pales in comparison to relational business. An RFP starts a transaction while a relationship starts a discussion. We all too often forget this simple truth: We’re all people who want to work with people we trust and respect. Focus on building trust and respect and the opportunities to submit a proposal will flow in.
And with relationships come more freedom and flexibility with your proposal and pitch. Even if you participate in that RFP, fight for your chance to be an orange when only apples are being considered.