As a digital agency, we see them all the time: poorly crafted requests for proposal (RFPs) that will never result in a productive vendor/client relationship.
In general, we tend to not respond to RFPs. Why? Because an RFP is not meant to acquire creative services. In reality, it’s meant to acquire a product at the lowest cost possible in a commoditized fashion.
While many public service companies and nonprofits may seek lower costs out of necessity, those in the private sector usually have the ability to choose quality over low cost. As such, they should honestly evaluate if an RFP process really will help them find the best fit—rather than just the best price tag—for their project.
So, why is your RFP going to result in a bad vendor choice?
1) You are not vetting the candidates.
Whoever wins your project is going to become a close partner for several weeks, if not months. Therefore, you must be absolutely certain that they understand your values, and that you understand theirs.
This means finding agencies that are a cultural fit for your project and team. The best way to do this? Research! Find agencies that match your style, your personality, and in general give you the confidence that you can work with them. Without that confidence, it isn’t worth submitting your project for their consideration.
2) You are not available for Q&A prior to the deadline.
So many RFPs come across our desks that ask us (with an advanced level of ambiguity) to submit a price without a one on one conference to discuss the project. This approach will almost always guarantee that you’ll make the wrong choice.
When you go for the numbers before you go for the details, not only can the vendor not discuss the specifics of the project with you, but you can’t get a feel for working with them. You start your project off with a deficit of information, which usually doesn’t end well.
3) Your process and format are too rigid.
Creative agencies want to think outside the box to present unique solutions to your problems. This is a natural part of the creative process.
It’s okay to want answers to specific questions, but if your RFP requires the agency to substantially rewrite a proposal just to meet your qualifications, you are already inhibiting their creativity. The best agencies will work overtime to make their proposals interesting and edgy, all with a mind to make your project stand out from the crowd—why limit that from day one?
4) Your spec is crap.
Sorry, but this is the #1 issue we see in RFPs. Vague, yet overly ambitious specifications will muddy the waters very fast. They result in massive pricing divergences between respondents—that’s why an RFP can attract one quote of $3,000 and then another of $30,000. If the details aren’t there, the quotes will largely be uninformed guesses.
How do you fix this? Arrange for a proper project discovery before even issuing the RFP! That way, you can be sure that your spec is tight and the quotes you receive are realistic and based on facts.
These are actual requests we’ve seen from RFPs that could be valued in the millions of dollars:
“c. Provide workflow for XXXX to manage, embed, and distribute video on and off XXXX digital assets, including:
i. Teaser videos hosted on YouTube and the optimization of teaser videos and ad referrals to embedded full-length video content hosted on XXXX.com;
ii. Seamlessly manage, track and respond to User Generated Content.”
There are only about 15 ways to do this, and the budget required could vary substantially.
"The website should be able to accommodate plug-ins (e.g. event calendar, photo galleries, contact forms, business listings, blogging, SEO, social media).”
Do you see how something so vague can result in a variety of responses? This will result in a dispute with the vendor 100% of the time.
So how can you procure the services of a digital agency properly? It’s simple:
1) Find agencies that fit your model.
As stated above, find teams you want to work with from both an experience and a personality point of view. Narrow down to 3 or 4 different groups and proceed only with them. End random submissions and ensure that the eventual winner is definitely someone you can work with in the long term.
2) Arrange for an initial conversation with each agency.
Don’t just talk to a “sales guy/gal.” Talk to a strategist or an executive, and make sure the whole team there understands your goals, objectives, risks, and rewards.
3) Allow for creativity.
Don’t burden the agencies with unnecessary formatting expectations or extremely specific requests. Allow them to creatively offer concepts and solutions to your problems, including those you might have not previously thought of yourself.
4) Develop a proper spec.
For a true apples-to-apples comparison, create a thorough, detailed specification. This may require you to bring in additional help to conduct a discovery session. Many agencies (including us) offer this as a service. It’s a good way to “date before you marry”—a low cost way of determining how you would work together.
Then use the results of that specification to get quotes from your chosen vendors. In this way, you’ll limit the possibility of pricing divergence and have quality quotes on which to base your decision.
It’s the beginning of something special!
Remember, you are shopping for a service. Not a commodity. The team you choose must be capable, creative, and give you confidence in their abilities. A creative vetting process will always yield better results than a traditional, impersonal RFP process.