Die, RFP, Die, Die, Die!

A few years ago provocateur Tom Foremski wrote a blog post titled “Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!” He talked about how the press release had become a largely meaningless tool, a toothless artifact of a disconnected past. He was right. That post, along with my own experiences in the communications trenches, inspired me to create the Social Media News Release.

TombstoneToday I’m hoping this post inspires you. Today I’m swapping the words “press release” for the acronym “RFP” in the hope that we may collectively change what I view as a deeply flawed process of engagement.

My hope is that together we can create a better, more streamlined way of sharing agency credentials with those who would like to hire us. And I’d like to hear your ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

But first, something has to die.

To my fellow PR, digital and social media agency practitioners, and to the marketers looking to us to extend and elevate the conversations about their brands, please join me in throwing shovels full of dirt on the outlandishly time-intensive evaluation mechanism known as the RFP.

Suggested epitaph of the RFP?  “I asked too many questions. I asked too many of the wrong questions. I asked too many of the wrong questions too many times, to too many people.”

I’ve been at this game a long time and I’ve grappled with more than my fair share of RFPs. And SHIFT fortunately has a great track record of clearing the RFP hurdle en route to the pitch (95 percent, I’d say). I’m not writing this post because RFPs prevent us from winning business, or because I don’t appreciate the invitation to participate. I certainly do! I’m writing it because RFPs are a colossal timesuck for all parties – for those compiling, issuing and reviewing the RFP, and for the agencies of all stripes invited to complete them. The joy of receiving a new RFP dissolves into abject anguish the moment its contents, so familiar and yet just different enough to require days of work, are revealed.

A typical RFP means expensive senior talent must devote several hours (sometimes days!) to complete an assignment that five or 10 other firms also are completing. Best case scenario: 20 percent chance of winning. Worst case scenario: your work isn’t even read.

Sometimes the firm must undergo training just to complete the RFP response via a system such as Ariba or Citrix. Other times the questions are so specific and far-reaching that it’s as if an alien nation descended upon earth to gain a comprehensive understanding of what PR is, what social media is, and how earthlings measure with granularity the impact of the firms’ proposed interactions with the planet’s influencers.

The thing is, we get invited to participate in the RFP process based on our well-documented track record in both traditional and social media. We are being considered precisely because of our previous work and reputation. Couldn’t a 20 minute phone call erase any lingering concerns? Couldn’t we all save a lot of time, trouble and trees if we just … had a conversation?

But I’m not naïve. The reality is, marketers need to both show their value and cover their behinds with a documented review process. They are accountable for their decisions, especially when budgets are six or seven figures. If an agency lays an egg, there needs to be a paper trail showing the decision to hire that particular group was based on a thoughtful process.

So the question is, how do agencies make marketers look smart while dramatically reducing the tedious and often redundant work of today’s RFP?

I personally don’t think technology is the answer. Maybe in 10 years it will be, but for now most execs want to touch and feel the hard copy document. They want to pour over stacks of proposals and mark up the pages with notes and scores and questions.

No, I think we’re still dealing with a better, more useful set of questions that can quickly establish credentials and reveal differences between the competing firms’ skills, expertise and philosophies. A set of questions that can be broadly applied to almost any agency by almost any sized company (publicly traded companies are more challenging, obviously, given the degree of governance involved).

Some smart folks have already taken a stab at the social media piece, perhaps making the process easier, but I don’t think they’ve necessarily made short work of the process.

Can we together create a 10 question RFP template that should reasonably satisfy any marketer looking to hire an agency? What are those questions? How much space should be allotted to answer each question? What percentage of the questions should be “creative assignments?” Are such assignments even fair?

Please share your thoughts, gang. And I want to hear from my marketing friends, too! In my next post I’ll share some of my own ideas as well as the best of yours. We’ll keep iterating until we’ve got something close to perfection. I will then, as always, share the final template with everyone to use and share freely.

Who’s first?

fun but true