An RFP Bill of Rights for Advertising + Marketing Agencies





Overall, RFPs are a great thing for small and medium-sized agencies. They help us expand our client list, play on a level field (well, hopefully, most of the time) and, in some cases, establish ourselves as a new agency. But who really likes filling them out and responding to them?

Simple answer: No one!

Having responded to and/or viewed more Marcom RFPs than I’d care to admit, I have been of the mindset that they are unnecessarily unwieldy, convoluted and, in some cases, outright sadistic.

Perhaps some of the problem is that most of us in the Marcom business tend to be right-brained. I am fully convinced that most purchasing managers – the one’s who write the RFPs – are of the left-brain persuasion.

That’s never a good sign.

That being said, here is an RFP Bill of Rights, a few simple rules I wish all potential issuers of Marcom RFPs would follow (wish being he operative word here):

1. Agencies shall never be asked for a performance bond payment as part of an initial response to an RFP. This is outright ridiculous. Why does an organization need a performance bond from each of the many agencies responding to an initial query? It only ties up agency funds and screws up agency cash flow. If an organization feels compelled to ask for a performance bond, it would be much more reasonable to ask for it once the initial cut of responding agencies has been made. At least then the agency knows it has a fighting chance of actually winning the business.RFPillus

2. Issuing organizations will not negate dozens of hours of work performed by submitting agencies because of immaterial oversights or mistakes. While on the subject of performance bonds, here’s one for you. Once I worked my butt off on a very difficult RFP. It broke practically every rule in this article and it was a magilla to fill out. On top of that it required a performance bond. The RFP was so precise in how everything had to be done, that we were working on it up until the very last minute. We practically ran to the UPS place. The next morning we discovered that we failed to put the performance bond check (certified, of course) in the envelope. I immediately contacted the issuing office and explained our situation. I would send it out immediately. I would wire it to them if necessary. Their response? Sorry, the time for submission has passed. We cannot accept an incomplete response. (I mean, c’mon, we put in hours of work and just because, as we rushed to make the deadline, we forgot to put a check in the package, you’re going to screw us? Puh-leeeeez!)

3. Agencies shall not have to visit the notary public on the initial round of an RFP. Okay, so when an RFP is issued by a large organization and there’s real work to be had, you’ll probably get about fifteen-to-twenty agencies submitting a response. At that point is it really necessary to have every one of those agencies sign five or six notarized documents? That’s just what an agency wants – as you’re desperately hustling to finish the already demanding document, why not take a break or two to run over to the local Notary Public? These things are hard enough to respond to in the first place. I remember once I responded to an RFP which was issued by a department of the State of New York. We had to get a document notarized about us doing business in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland? We’d be happy just to get business in Northern New York. If such documents are necessary (and I guess they are), wouldn’t it be more efficient for the issuing organization to wait until it has made at least its initial cuts?

4. Issuers of RFPs will put the Scope of Work up front in the document. How many of you have picked up an RFP for Marketing or Advertising or Creative Services and all you could read about in the first 30 pages or so had to do with “Ownership of Rights”, “Force Majeure”, definitions of 20 or so legal terms, an explanation of the evaluation process (at this point you don’t even know what the evaluation process is for), the fact that they’re not going to pay us for any work we performed in responding to the RFP (duhhhhhhh……), and a multitude of other things which have nothing to do with marketing communications. Wouldn’t it be much simpler just to include the Scope of Work on the first couple of pages, so we could decide if it’s even worth reading all the legal mumbo jumbo?

5. Issuers of RFPs will organize their documents in a user-friendly manner and shall include a prominent, clearly discernable and complete list of exactly what’s required by the submitting agencies. This one goes part and parcel along with the above. On some RFPs there’s no one single place listing everything required as part of the submission. (It reads something like this: “See Appendix A for questions regarding agency capabilities and then refer to Appendix B to provide evidence of firm’s financial stability. And please also attach filled out forms QXY -123 and LMN-456 from Appendix E). Once when I was about to put our response to one of these dastardly RFPs into the UPS box, I happened to see a “buried” statement somewhere within the legal mumbo-jumbo. It read something like this: “Please make sure to include a redacted copy of your response due to our Freedom of Information Act requirements.” So I sprinted down the hallway, got behind a computer, and started randomly blanking out pieces of the document so we could include said “redacted copy.” Phew……

6. Issuers of RFPs will always accept electronic submissions. This is where insult adds to injury. You’ve struggled to comprehend and respond to the RFP. The “thinking” portion of the job is done. But now – usually at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute – it’s time for the collating, binding and folding steeplechase. And some of the requirements are ridiculous, such as: Please include five bound copies with tabs separating each major section and an original with all the signed forms as requested as well as a CD or Memory Stick with digital copies of the files. Not only does it take away from your valuable time in actually responding to the substance of the RFP, but it makes stockholders of Fedex and UPS very happy. Last time I checked this is, indeed, the 21st century. Everyone in business has at least one digital device that can read a document (and most have access to a printer if they desire a hard copy). Isn’t it about time we put the binding machine out to pasture?

7. Issuers of RFPs will not employ circuitous and/or contradictory logic in their response requirements. It amazes me how many of these RFP documents are so self-contradictory. Here’s an example. The RFP begins with a statement that the project is “set aside” for small businesses. Then it asks you to list three current client references where “there have been multiple points of contact at a single client.” Problem is, they also want general recommendations from five current clients and you cannot include the ones cited previously. Okay, most small agencies would be very, very lucky to have eight active clients at any one time. So, by asking for so many client references, they are, in effect, taking most small agencies out of the process that was expressly set aside for them in the first place.

8. Issuers of RFPs will be realistic about how agencies are staffed and the related requirements. I once had an RFP where it requested that if we were to employ any independent contractors or freelancers on the project, they would each have to respond to the entire RFP separately (which was voluminous to begin with!). This is a major waste of time detracting from the real substance of the project.  Additionally,  you might not even know who it is that you are going to use because of timing and availability. The organizations who issue RFPs have to understand that a small to medium sized agency cannot survive with a bloated staff; we can’t pay people to wait around just to be there and available for when your RFP comes across our desk. Any agency has to have freelancers. Yes, an agency needs to have a permanent core of good people with marketing and advertising savvy. But as a client organization, do you really care if your agency has to hire junior art directors or programmers to compile the ads? If it’s a good agency, they’ll find good people. Trust them.

9. Issuers of RFPs will understand that it is nearly impossible for an agency to both have current “category experience” and be conflict-free. First of all, to me “category experience” is grossly over-rated. We are professionals at our craft. We are communicators. If we’re any good, we should be able to communicate effectively about any product, service or institution if we do our homework responsibly. And, guess what? If we did have current direct category experience, it would be a conflict and either the organization issuing the RFP or our current client in that category would have an issue.

10. Issuers of RFPs will understand that it is highly unlikely that an agency has multiple clients in the same category as the issuer. It tickles me – it really does – when an RFP asks us to submit client references for other clients in their same category, usually narrowly defined, such as: Please list at least three recent clients who are academic institutions in the mid-west for whom you have performed strategic branding services. Stop right there. First of all, if they are current clients that would represent a conflict. If they were recent clients and you’re no longer working with them, something most likely went wrong and then one must question why the issuing institution would want you at all. Sounds like a lose/lose situation to me. Here’s a corollary to that one. Have you ever read a requirement in an RFP that was so narrowly defined that only one agency could possibly respond correctly to that question? Here’s an example: Please list all energy utility clients in Southern California for whom you have developed consumer-based energy efficiency advertising programs. Actually, this one doesn’t bother me as much as many of the others. Think of it as a smoke signal. The client is only issuing the RFP because some rule says they have to re-open the bidding process every few years. They have written the RFP in such a way so only the incumbent can possibly win. Heed that smoke signal and run as far away from that RFP as quickly as possible.

11. Issuing organizations will show the same respect of the agencies' time as they demand from the agencies. This one's really wishful thinking. It bothers me how everything has to be delivered to the issuing organization in a precisely defined format at the precisely defined time. Not a minute later (see number 2 above). Yet, in the height of all irony, the issuing organization takes their sweet time in making a decision. If they say they'll get back to you by April 1st, most likely you won't hear anything until around mid-May. Asymmetrical justice, if you ask me. We know this will never change, but we can always hope.

So that’s it. If issuing organizations were to follow this simple RFP Bill of Rights they would probably get more responses (because agencies wouldn’t be intimidated by the complexity) that are more to the point and take less of the agencies' valuable time.   When you get right down to it, on the first round of an RFP there are only a few things the issuing organization really needs to know to cut down the list. Here’s a suggested outline:

  1. Tell us about your agency.
  2. What makes your agency different than others?
  3. Who are the key people who would be working on our account?
  4. Show us your best work and most successful case studies.
  5. Based upon what you know today, give us your initial thoughts on our marketing issues.

That’s it. No legal documents. No Notary Publics. No so narrowly-defined criteria that it forces the agency to show something other than its best work. Just the substance of what the agency is all about and  a little bit about how they think. As simple as that. RFPs are a good thing. They give agencies opportunity. But this good thing can be made a lot better by following these simple rules.

What do you think?


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