Five Mistakes Brands Should Avoid in the RFP Process

Thoughtful consideration is the key to conducting a meaningful selection process.

As a former agency General Counsel and President, I have seen my share of poorly crafted RFPs* and inefficient selection processes. From those experiences and from anecdotes shared with me by agency executives, business development professionals and brand-side marketing professionals, I offer the following list of common mistakes that brands should avoid. [Note: I will tackle common agency mistakes to avoid in a later post. None of us are perfect.]

* “RFP” is the acronym for Request for Proposals, a document commonly issued by companies to solicit - on a competitive basis - strategic and/or tactical ideas and pricing from potential suppliers. In the experiential world, RFPs are generally issued for one or a series of specific campaigns, but may be issued in the hopes of securing a retained agency or agency of record (“AOR”).

Let’s start, as Steven Covey would implore, with the end in mind. What does a brand hope to achieve through the RFP process?

At its most basic, the process serves as a way for a brand to communicate its campaign specifications and to secure fundamental information from responding agencies (pricing, timelines, operational approach). This process allows for a rudimentary comparison and selection of an agency that should be capable of meeting the brand's threshold campaign requirements.

At its best, the process should be designed to allow the brand and all responding agencies to begin forging transparent, collaborative relationships that can deliver meaningful value well beyond the current campaign. Such a process should clearly communicate the brand's objectives and the value that they hope to achieve through the work. It should also be designed to allow the brand to understand the strategic acumen, operational capabilities and infrastructure of all responding agencies and to evaluate whether each agency grasps the brand's challenge and is capable of delivering the desired value.

In order to serve this higher purpose, the RFP process should be structured to allow time for thoughtful consideration and collaborative discussions. And when I write “thoughtful consideration”, I mean that both in terms of (a) providing the agencies with the ability to thoughtfully consider the brand’s objectives and craft a meaningful response and (b) allowing the brand the space and time to thoughtfully consider the responses of each agency.

So with that in mind, here are common mistakes that cut against that purpose and should be avoided at all costs:

Not enough time built into the process.

Anyone who has worked in agency development for more than a minute has experienced a preposterous timeline. For example, the RFP is issued on Friday and responses are due the following Friday. And Monday happens to be Labor Day. Come on, now. Brands need to plan their timeline to allow the respondents to consider the request, formulate questions, get responses and build out a thorough response. Often, these responses require input from multiple critical functional areas (e.g. finance, legal, venues, fleet, staffing and production) and it is in everyone’s best interest to allow time for that input. Now, we all live in the real world and sometimes timelines need to be compressed. But, if you have the time to give, give it.

Not including a Q&A round in the process.

Even the most carefully crafted RFPs cannot cover everything and include areas that are subject to multiple interpretations. So, brands need to include a Q&A round as part of the process. The Q&A is such a critical part of the process for at least three reasons: (a) the agencies may uncover something that you missed, which if left unresolved would decrease the quality of the responses; (b) it helps to get all agencies on the same page, so that their responses are more easily compared against each other; and (c) it gives the brand an early opportunity to evaluate an agency’s thinking. Beware of the agency that does not ask questions. They are likely not paying sufficient attention to the process.

Including too many agencies.

Before the RFP is issued, the brand should narrow the field to no more than 5 (and preferably fewer) high quality options. It is highly inefficient - if not virtually impossible - to thoroughly consider more than 5 responses. In addition, agencies are going to be less engaged in the process if they know the field is large and, therefore, their chances of winning are statistically slim at the outset.

Having the wrong people in the room.

When it comes time to evaluate the proposals and listen to live pitches from the finalists, pay careful attention to who is and who is not in the room. All decision makers and decision influencers should evaluate the proposals and be present for the live pitch. They should understand the campaign objectives and be prepared to ask critical questions to assess whether each agency’s proposal is achieving those objectives and if the agency has the right team in place to execute. Experiential is a complex discipline and it is a mistake not to have someone (or multiple someones) in the room who understands the infrastructure and operational expertise necessary to execute a successful campaign. In addition, when key players are absent from the room it sends a strong and wrong message to the agencies: this stakeholder (and possibly the brand) is not taking this process seriously.

Ghosting the participants.

Don’t get to the end of the process and then go completely radio silent on all or just the non-winning participants. Understand that as soon as agencies were invited to the dance, the brand is forging professional relationships with them. And just because an agency did not win this RFP does not necessarily mean the brand will not want to be working with them down the road. In fact, Agency A might be selected and fail to go to contract because of an insurmountable hurdle in the negotiations. It will be pretty awkward moving to Agency B if the brand went dark on them after their pitch. In addition, if the brand is - as it should be - thinking beyond this one campaign, giving feedback to each agency allows them to improve the quality of future responses and future work. Honest, constructive feedback is a gift. Tell an agency if their prices were too high, or if it appears their production department is not up to the challenge or if their strategy missed the mark. The good agencies will love the feedback and will look forward to the next opportunity to demonstrate they’ve internalized the insight.