Why You Should Never Respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP) - Splat, Inc.

Why You Should Never Respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP)


Definition: What is a RFP? What does “RFP” stand for?

RFP means Request for Proposal. You can define what an RFP is in business differently across different fields, but a graphic design RFP, communications RFP, video production RFP, architectural RFP, and marketing RFP all have one meaning in common: They’re asymmetrical asks for what amounts to free work. Here’s why you should avoid them–at least until we all agree to do RFPs differently.

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 or request for proposal where the competition is unknown, the budgets aren’t divulged and, often, the criteria is muddy.

In our office at Splat, we just got through responding to a number of RFPs. They left our team members somewhat frustrated, as we hit the ‘send’ button on our email client and watched our RFP proposal message-in-a-bottle float out to sea. We pondered 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 and examples of what makes the RFP process so frustrating– directed at those marketing professionals requesting proposals for web design or digital marketing.

A side note from us to our fellow marketers: We would love to offer other marketing project managers some RFP templates, or RFP response examples, or submitted proposal examples or whatever help we could: something that worked for us.

The fact of the matter, though, is that the standard proposal process of responding to RFPs simply isn’t worth it, most of the time. Here’s why.

RFP Process Issue 1: RFPs Rarely Include What a Client is Willing To Spend

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

One sticking point 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 writers, or clients, for that matter, expect detailed cost breakdowns and a full scope of work, 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 request for proposal has a budget – or at least a range – they need their responses to fall within. So why is that range locked up like a state secret in the bowels of Fort Knox?

There is a reality behind a web design or digital marketing firm’s bidding strategy. We always attempt to adjust to client expectations, both in terms of budget and results. Tell us your expectations and budget up front in your web design RFP, architecture RFP, or digital marketing RFP, and we’ll design a response to suit. Let’s all save time!

Of course, what is really going on here from the RFP writer’s perspective is insecurity. The thinking is that by divulging price preferences, RFP responses will float to the top of whatever range that’s given.

That just doesn’t make sense from the agency’s perspective, however. The project soliciting 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.

RFP Process Issue 2: RFPs Obscure Who Your Competitors Are

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

All successful studios, agencies, and potential vendors relish competition. It’s why we literally enter competitions for awards. Our work only looks great if there’s something to compare it to. But, it pays for us to know who we’re competing against. Background information is only reasonable. And here is where RFPs are the textbook example of unfair competition. And they don’t even benefit the writer issuing the RFP.

As another agency head once put it, “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.”

I need to expand on that last point. Without providing examples of the direction other agencies have taken, those issuing RFPs force the agency responding to an RFP to stay in the middle of the road in terms of their design capability and unique take on a given project.

You don’t get the agency’s A game, to stick with sports for a second. You get some weird average, like a restaurant that just serves a giant lukewarm buffet, as opposed to a signature dish.

RFP Process Issue 3: RFPs Force Unproductive Workflows on Smaller Agencies

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

Most RFPs outline a workflow that doesn’t make sense for how a digital marketing agency would complete the project. Let’s establish what I mean by that.

Need an example? Well, fine, then; one comes immediately to mind. In some of the RFPs we respond to, we’re asked to present ‘three separate concepts’ which explain how we would solve our client’s task.

Most web designers and graphic designers I know hate this rigid insistence on three (or four) separate concepts. There are many reasons, but the main ones are:

  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, in most RFP examples, we’re required to produce three, four or even more. What that particular facet of the RFP response process means is we spend an unnecessary amount of time refining and developing ideas which aren’t our best, just to satisfy an arbitrary time consuming requirement.

    As a client, ask yourself this: Would you rather have us fully elaborate on what we think our best ideas are, or spend that time on pushing out a third (or fourth) less inspired concept?
  2. When an RFP writer requires three or four “layout options,” it usually creates a Frankenstein’s Monster of different layouts squashed together.

    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 one of those old menus from a Chinese restaurant.

    We believe it is best to invest the creative energy into a single, well-crafted design. This allows us to focus our creativity on making sure we’re getting the details of that one concept just right. We think this offers more value and potential for success than spreading those resources out across multiple designs, which can feel clunky and forced together in an

    “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 from the client writing an RFP, 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 face shape of your third born? Probably not. And you probably wouldn’t win any competitive awards (see above, we agencies are competitive, remember!) for parenting, either.

  3. Finally, requiring so many layout options in RFP response examples 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 reports or brochure ideas, static layouts certainly made sense.
    But, in order to fully illustrate innately digital things like menu states, rollovers, and slider elements, digital agencies should really make them 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 innately digital elements 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. Plus, these elements are likely to represent the coolest part of what an agency can do. That’s another way that the infuriating middle of the road strategy we mentioned before rears its head.

Conclusion: The RFP Process May Simply Not Be Worth It

It’s frustrating. Marketing agencies live to push the products and services the public needs to know about. The principles behind what an RFP is make sense. Companies should put a clear set of guidelines out there, request proposals, and pick from the best examples.

The problem with the RFP process simply is that the standard conditions under which businesses issue RFPs are unfair. They offer a very lopsided proposition for the potential development partner.

Some agencies even forego most RFP or other requests for proposals. However, as we have tried to point out here, there are concerns an RFP issuer can address to make the process fairer.

If you are writing an RFP, you should do the following to make responding to it easier:

  1. Include an accurate budget range in the RFP or other request for proposals.
  2. Inform those responding to the RFP who the other people or businesses responding to the RFP are.
  3. Allow firms responding to the RFP choice in how to represent their work in the RFP documents they submit.

Even if these refinements to the RFP process make them more difficult to write in the short term, RFP issuers who follow these guidelines will be more attractive to top flight development partners.

Ultimately, the definition of an RFP needs to be an actual request. That is, they should facilitate a dialogue, and not a demand. Arbitrary, unhelpful rules and criteria should belong to the RFPs of the past.

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