Before You Write a Request for Proposal for Your Next Digital Project, Read This


A friend of mine, an architect, has an expression he repeats frequently, “R.F.P equals R.I.P.” A pretty glib (and glum) sentiment that reflects, I think, the dread and futility many of us have about responding to a competitive bid request where the competition is unknown, the budgets aren’t divulged and, often, the criteria is muddy.

In our office, we just got through responding to a number of RFPs. They left us somewhat frustrated, as we hit the ‘send’ button on our email client and watched our message-in-a-bottle float out to sea, pondering what its ultimate fate might be.

In the spirit of constructive venting, I’ve decided that maybe I could turn my frustrations into a teachable moment. Seize the day. Be a Smarty Pants. In that spirit, then, a few thoughts – directed at those marketing professionals putting together an RFP for web design or digital marketing.

My first gripe: I’ll show you mine but you won’t show me yours?

First off, let’s get to the point which frustrates all shops in new client negotiations, whether we’re talking a request for proposal or, generally, any new project. That point is budget.

Why is it that RFP authors or clients expect detailed cost breakdowns, on the one hand, and yet fail to disclose even the broadest preferences about project budget themselves? Let’s be honest here: every marketer being asked to put together an RFP has a budget – or at least a range – they need their responses to fall within. So why is that range guarded like a state secret? The reality to our bidding strategy is always that we attempt to adjust to client expectations, both in terms of budget and results. Tell us your expectations and budget up front, and we’ll design a response to suit.

Of course, what is really going on here, from the RFP author’s perspective is insecurity. The thinking is that, by divulging price preferences, responders will float to the top of whatever range that’s given. But, that just doesn’t make sense from the agency’s perspective. The project is being competitively bid. We know that and we know that it is just as likely that a desperate competitor will sink to the lower end of the given range, just to get the work. Giving us a range actually allows us to better match our response to your expectations.

My second gripe: How can the playing field be equal if I can’t see who I’m playing against?

All successful studios or agencies relish competition. It’s why we enter awards competitions. Our work only looks great if there’s something to compare it to. But we want to know who we’re competing against, which is only reasonable. As another agency blog writes, “Let’s use the NFL as an example. The Steelers know they are playing the Ravens opening day. And because they know this, they will put a plan together that maximizes their strengths against the Ravens’ weaknesses. If they didn’t know who they were playing, they would simply play it “safe”. If your job is to decide which team will provide the best game plan for YOU – then make them compete.”

My third gripe: The process just doesn’t make any sense.

Lastly, let’s establish this: most RFPs outline a workflow that doesn’t make sense for digital.
Need an example? Well, fine, then; one comes immediately to mind. In nearly all the RFPs we respond to, we’re asked to present layout options for at least ‘three separate concepts.’ Most designers I know hate this rigid insistence on ‘three (or four) separate concepts.’ Here’s why:

  1. For most smaller studios, working in design teams of 1 – 2 people, our first idea is usually the strongest. It’s not that we’re only capable of one good idea at a time, it’s just that, in our experience, our first is usually our best. Yet we’re required to produce three, four or more. What that means is we spend an unnecessary amount of time refining and developing ideas which aren’t our best, just to satisfy an arbitrary requirement. As a client, ask yourself this, would you rather have us fully elaborate on what we think our best idea (s) are, or spend that time on pushing out a third (or fourth) less inspired concept?
  2. Requiring three or four ‘layout options’ always creates a Frankenstein Monster. Here’s a little secret we’ve learned about decision making, from the client’s perspective: it is often influenced by insecurities which result in making compromises intended to please multiple stakeholders. Often, in our experience, this leads to clients needing to assemble a design by combining the initial palette of choices into a Chinese menu. “Ummm, yes… we’d like the header from layout 1, and, oh, can we embed the form from layout 3 and use the form pop-up button from layout 2?” The problem with this response, of course, is that there are usually big ideas behind each layout; an integrity and sense of self for each ‘big concept.’ Think of each layout idea as one of your children. Would you get the perfect child if you combined the nose of your oldest with the eyes of your second born and the torso of your third born? Probably not. You’d get Frankenstein child.
  3. Finally, requiring so many layout options limits our ability to illustrate nuance and interaction. The underlying problem with the ‘show me three static layouts’ point of view is that it derives from a previous era of print design. When showing annual report or brochure ideas, static layouts certainly made sense. But, in order to fully illustrate digital, things like menu states, rollovers, and slider elements, should really part of the initial presentation. Given our preferences, we might even choose to scrap the idea of static layouts and show our clients working web-based mockups. Because these require a greater time commitment, though, we’re unlikely to offer these if we’re adhering to rigid RFP requirement of 3 or 4 mandatory layout options.

My conclusion

Sadly, the standard conditions under which an RFP are released offer a very lopsided proposition for the potential development partner. Some agencies even forego most opportunities. However, as this article has tried to point out, there are concerns an RFP issuer can address to make the process fairer and, to their benefit, more attractive to top flight development partners. Ultimately, the process needs to be one which facilitates dialogue and not a one way issuance of criteria the agency is expected to meet.