The right client/agency fit can make all the difference in marketing. Yet the typical RFP cattle call used to make that match is broken. The hoops clients give agencies to jump through in a pitch don’t really mimic the working relationship. Agencies are also often asked to create actual campaigns for free that may never be used, all the while ignoring their real clients.
“Agencies are victims of our own drama. We have taught the clients that we will give them free ideas, that we will invest extraordinarily for a chance to prove we are the right partner, we will give away our IP for a shot,” said Laurie Coots at TBWA\Worldwide in a recent Fast Company article on “10 Ways to Fix the Agency Pitch Process“.
In one of my first agency jobs 15 years ago, I responded to most incoming RFPs for an interactive agency. It was exhausting work for the whole organization. We created entire website concepts as spec work for free. If we lost, we’d often see our ideas six months later grafted to the ideas of the agency that won the business.
I’ve since worked on both sides of the client/agency dynamic. The best relationships weren’t those that shared the best single campaign idea in the pitch. They were the relationships with the right chemistry in people and culture.
Agencies and clients need to realize that relationships are a two-way fit. In the same Fast Company article, I like this alternate approach from Tom Denari at Young & Laramore:
“Recognize that agency relationships are just that–relationships. Instead of having the agencies spend ungodly hours developing a campaign that might never be used–or worse yet, might be very ineffective–have the actual working team commit to a two-day session of intense interviewing. Interview the agency principals individually. Find out what they believe in. What are they in the business for? Are they going to sell out? See if their stories match. Make sure you can work with a group that might present something you won’t like, not just something you do.”
(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)
14 CommentsJoin the Discussion
Gary Kopervas says
Definitely a hot topic that (unfortunately) won’t go away. RFP process truly is broken and continues to feed a destructive habit that agencies just can’t kick. Giving our ideas away for free in hopes of bringing in new business. Strong post, Tom, with some really good links to deepen the conversation. Thanks.
Tom Lincoln says
I completely agree. Responding to RFP’s, and pitching(I try not to use that term) to committees is usually a rigged game.
We try to only respond to prospect’s RFP’s that will really collaborate with us in an initial discovery conversation. You can learn a lot about the real situation in them.
I once had a phone conversation with a large metropolitan city, that wanted to start a sponsorship campaign, ask us to respond to the RFP, along with 16 other companies(red flag #1, 2-4 other agencies being asked to respond usually indicates a real need by a prospect)
After talking to the city comptroller a bit(red flag #2, his or her job is to “beat you up” on price and treat you as a commodity)I asked how he found us and he responded, “Oh, I found you on the Internet.”(red flag #3)He just picked random companies he knew nothing about.
I then discovered that the RFP was written by one of the other 16 agencies that was responding to it! I politely responded that we would not be responding to that RFP.
He was a bit upset with my response. You see, most prospects think that they are supposed to put these RFP “things” out, and that we will respond to them. This is how they think business should be done, rather than form a trusting relationship with You. Why do you think you hear that agency X signed with brand y for a $24 million campaign one-year only to be fired the next-year, after trust is blown and the brands of both companies are damaged.
It may help to know that RFP’s are put out for really four main reasons:
1. Decision makers need to get committee buy-in
2. They don’t know what they don’t know(here you have a chance to help them)
3. It is a rigged game, but they need to have x-number submissions for corporate procedure-sake.
4. They are getting free ideas to use with the incumbent or to use for negotiation purposes with the incumbent.
Answer the big RFP’s if you really “have to work with that client.” But do yourself a favor. Before you fill out that 40-page form, call them first. If they won’t meet with you alone, or at least talk to you on the phone, answer at your own peril. It is then like buying a lottery ticket.
We have our standard “lottery ticket” proposals all ready in files, that we can use for the “long shots”(customized to the brand of course.) But we do not spend a lot of time on them.
It is better to spend your time networking, getting quality introductions to decision makers, developing business with prospects that are in your “sweet spot.” Clients that you like to work with, that like working with You. Clients that you can form trusting, long-term relationships that are more valuable for you both.
How true! Me, too. Having been on both sides, as pitcher, and pitchee, I agree on this approach wholeheartedly. However, our latest foray, was pretty-much based on personality fit, but we missed finding that the company didn’t have the contacts we thought they did — an expensive lesson.
Luis Oliveira says
“Giving ideas for free”!!! Nobody is (or should be) paying for ideas, they should be paying to have a problem solved. It is truly amazing that people expect that an agency, with very limited or no knowledge of the problem, will magically come up with an “idea” that will solve a problem that has not been formulated. No wonder we see so much money being wasted on both sides of the relationship.
Michael Gass says
Thanks for sharing both the cartoon and your post. Great thought ‘jump-starters’ for a Monday. I like your emphasis on relationships – the right chemistry in people and culture.
AMC’s ‘The Pitch’ vividly demonstrated the flaws in the ‘pitch the big idea’ for new business process. It is loaded with ‘land mine’s. It should be the responsibility of those who are charged with new business to help their agency avoid these at all cost.
At the recent Mirren New Business Conference in New York, Simon Sherwood, partner – group chief executive officer, BBH, said, “Avoiding pitching is the smartest new business strategy of all.“ I agree.
Arun Prabhu says
As a trainee copywriter 20 years ago, I witnessed first hand how our tagline for the pitch was simply taken by the client and given to another agency. The rationale for us not winning the pitch was that the client was advised “the number one beer brand in the country dserves the number one agency”.
Since moving client side eight years ago, on the few occasions that I invite agencies to pitch, I insist that they do NOT include creatives of any sort. What I’m interested in is understanding an agency’s approach to a given brief: their tools, processes and most importantly, people.
Bill Carlson says
Having been “the new business guy”, I could write a book on this…
I’ll skip a bunch of agency biz-dev stuff which is in fact pretty thoroughly covered in the referenced article “10 Ways To Fix The Agency Pitch Process.” I’m not really sure the RFP process is actually broken but it doesn’t diminish the value of some of the points made. One point in particular from Laurie Coots, CMO of TBWA\Worldwide, we need to keep in mind: “agencies have to set new standards, know what’s important to them, and to define the lines within which they will participate and stick to them.”
So: just say no!
But not really sure the process is broken if clients are getting what they want. And it continues to happen because there are many resources around offering basically the same sorts of services and there’s always someone who will take a shot.
Capitalism at its best!
My primary problem with the agency sales process, RFPs or not, is that I really, really, really do not like the concept of jeopardizing relationships with valued and paying clients in order to over-invest in a prospect who has yet to make any commitment to my agency. Note: OVER-invest. Obviously need to invest in marketing and selling the agency’s services but all too often I’ve seen current business back-burnered in favor of a swarm team approach to winning a new client who has yet to demonstrate the same level of commitment to us. And the trickle-down of that is the need to keep fees to existing customers high enough to cover the gambling on prospects…
In reality, a client who is being sold to on this basis (i.e. significant unpaid effort) should be concerned about how an agency responds to the *next* RFP since it’s potentially *their* program which may be jeopardized!
In a perfect world, we would follow the approach suggested by Alasdair Lloyd-Jones, COO, Big Spaceship, in the same article: “Bring on two agencies that excite you and pay for them to work with your team for a month or two on a particular challenge.”
As my grandmother used to say: “you never really know someone until you’ve travelled with them.”
Kyle Elyse Niederpruem says
RFPs are as out of date as communicating by letter to get an immediate response. Most “new” clients simply want to know if they can connect with you, if you’re on the same page, if you have at least a passing knowledge of their industry and issues.
Let’s face it, there are really few kinds of agencies out there: order takers, creatives or strategists. Each handles RFPs differently, but all complain about the process.
While an RFP may position you for success or failure from the beginning, it is rarely the document that clinches the deal.
Karl Sakas says
Tom, those are great links! I love the comments from Tom Lincoln and Bill Carlson.
My employer’s policy is that we don’t respond to RFPs unless we know the other side. We may win less business on an absolute basis, but it also means we avoid being cattle in the cattle call.
It’s also good for morale — by avoiding RFP responses, the team isn’t investing a ton of time into a process that rarely rewards the emotional and time investment involved.
Tom Denford ID Comms says
Hi Tom, hope all is well. You know I love the pitch related cartoons! Can’t help responding to this one… Mainly because we’ve just moved our company into new offices (www.idcomms.com/new-office) and I can see this print sitting perfectly on our new boardroom wall! The business is going really well so I’m glad to say we have more wall space than ever…!
My company designs and manages agency reviews so we can appreciate the frustrations of many agency folk where they feel the motivation for the pitch is not honest. We try to ensure as much as possible full transparency for agencies participating in reviews; what the client is looking for, who will make decisions and how those decisions will be made. In short, allow the agency to evaluate their chances and ascertain how much they are willing to out into winning.
My advice to any agency not happy about processes is to ask TONS of questions upfront about how the pitch process will be run. If you don’t get a good answer from the client or consultant then perhaps consider passing it over and working on the next one.
Lack of transparency kills pitches and frankly a client who can’t make an effort to describe to you what they’re looking for probably doesn’t deserve an agency of your quality.
Here’s hoping we get the print! Have a good week all
Teresa Fiore says
Excellent article. I’m from the Procurement side and I totally agree. Sometimes just meeting with the agencies as you suggest, is the best way to find the right agency partner.
peggy carroll says
First off, LOVE your cartoon. The scary truth of that is when they treat you like that in a pitch, it’s foreshadowing how they’ll treat you as their agency.
I’ve been involved in numerous pitches on the creative side, both staff and freelance, and I wholeheartedly agree with many of the comments above that it comes down to chemistry. There would be fewer complaints about the RFP process if agencies were more careful about accepting. If you’re desperate and say yes to everyone who asks you out on a date, you’re going to have some really bad experiences. Make sure they’re asking you out for the right reason, and find out as much as you can about them, and definitely talk to them as much as you can before you start. Not every pitch will wind up with the two of you walking into the sunset to an Air Supply song, but the chances of you getting date raped would severely diminish.
Great commentary and war stories on this week’s cartoon, thanks! I learned a lot from your insights. This week’s cartoon print goes to Tom Lincoln for the vivid red flags from a recent pitch and illustrating the 4 main reasons that RFPs are sent. This is a great cautionary tale.
Craig Lindberg says
Tom, Glad you cracked in to this can of worms. RFP participation; if not symptomatic of an agency’s death spiral, certainly a self-abusive habit that places self-indulgent creative pursuits ahead of less enticing but more critical business issues that led to this like the agency positioning, structure, and management. I wrote about this recently and offered a more healthy substitute that can be read here,