Why RFPs Are a Bad Idea & Brands Should Stop Asking For Them

by Travis Keith

RFPs have been standard practice in our industry since before most of us were born—and they’ve been a waste of time for just as long. Although they seem like a good idea (to brands), these seemingly “simple” requests for proposals are awful for the brand-agency relationship in more ways than you might realize. This is why we stopped doing them, and why we don’t think anyone else in our industry should respond to them either. 

1) They’re a waste of time and agency resources. 

Most RFPs solicit spec work or full proofs of concept. No one likes to work for free, but in our experience, we’ve wasted an exorbitant amount of time trying to really identify what exactly the brand wants. This is because RFPs are usually written, well, horribly. Why?

  • The goals are often vague. So you want to “increase brand awareness.” What does that mean? What metrics do you plan to measure success by? We are strategic thinkers who can offer excellent creative solutions. But if we don’t know what you really want, we can’t pitch what you really need. 
  • They often don’t specify the brand’s budget. Yet they request an estimate from the agency. These parameters are so vague it’s hard to deliver a solid concept that is realistic or accurate. We can pitch you a $100,000 video campaign or a $1 million campaign. How do we know what you really want? 
  • The timeline is also vague. Good quality work takes time, but RFPs are often murky when it comes to the real timeline. This confusion affects our creative recommendations, our creative capacity, and our general ability to give you the best work. 

Although there are ways to write better RFPs (e.g., outline budget, goals, timeline, and approach), that is just not enough for us anymore. At the end of the day, responding to RFPs is a cumbersome process with a somewhat low level of return, often thanks to these core problems. They set agencies up for failure because the output (aka the response) is only as good as the inputs. 

2) They waste the brand’s time and energy, too.

When you’re looking to save money—and nickel and dime everything along the way—you often end up spending more, whether it’s time, energy, or money. To solicit this “free” work, brands have to do their own countless hours of legwork: creating the RFP, sending it, monitoring responses, scheduling pitches, spending time in pitch meetings, having follow-ups to review said pitches, etc. 

Frankly, you’re not actually seeing an agency’s best work (see point 1) because RFP responses often devolve into a competition to see which agency can kiss the most ass. 

All that time wasted by the brand would be better spent on doing work with a single agency, and I’d venture to say that, in many cases, it’d be more cost-effective—even with a higher-rate agency. 

“It’s my best guess that in Canada each year we jam about $5 billion worth of wasted time and effort into our economy because of these inefficient RFP processes.”
Cal Harrison

In fact, I’ve yet to meet a marketer or brand person that did not hate the RFP process themselves. 

3) RFPs hurt our actual clients. 

This is a huge problem. Responding top RFPs means we are actually using a portion of our current clients’ budgets to bankroll another brand’s free work. This only adds more work to our plate, and it saps the creative energy that we would—and should—give our actual clients.  

The best work comes from deep, collaborative relationships. We would much rather invest more time in our existing partnerships, developing ideas and strategies to grow with those companies, than spend time on an RFP with an extremely low win rate and an enormous time investment. 

4) RFPs don’t facilitate true partnership or equity. 

One common excuse for RFPs is that they “promote equity” in agency responses. It actually does the exact opposite. Ultimately, RFPs are simply looking for:

  • The lowest price
  • The best-looking proposal 
  • Free work

It’s champagne taste but a beer budget. And, again, what they’re getting isn’t even the best available to them.

  • Creative work isn’t a commodity. Not all work is equal. Every website, visual identity, brand messaging engagement, global campaign, or content strategy is done differently from agency to agency. Sure, there are similarities in process and theory, but brands don’t see each agency’s unique value when they review their proposals. They just see that one website costs $100K and another website costs $50K. 
  • RFPs often obfuscate access to key decision-makers. RFPs are often run by procurement, an independent third party, or someone several levels up. This is under the guise of making the process “fair and equitable” when in actuality it handicaps the agency’s ability to interact with the real stakeholders. In fact, as it’s often the finance or procurement team that chooses the agency, the brand/marketing team doesn’t have a strong sense of ownership over the work done or who they’re working with. This matters not only because of the information exchange needed (again, see point 1) but because your working relationship will make or break an engagement. A brand-agency partnership only works if you really gel. Without that access, you’re both going in blind. 

Frankly, RFPs encourage brands to work with just about any agency that can lowball, make big promises, and pitch well, but brands should be very picky about who they partner with. 

5) The Finance team is the only “real “winner. 

We often joke that RFPs are just an awful way for Finance to pick the cheapest agency. And in many cases, this is true—because the only group that walks away satisfied is the one whose mandate was to spend as little money as possible. The brand loses because the best agency likely didn’t participate or was told they were too expensive. The winning agency likely already harbors a little resentment for having to go through the RFP process while being treated like a vendor (not a respected partner). And to make matters worse, the agency tends to get grinded by finance/procurement in the negotiation phase, an experience that can be excruciating if they already submitted an estimate that used discount rates in a bid to be selected. 

Because of all this, the work tends to be subpar, and the end user is let down as well. 

The Better Way

I know the industry is unlikely to break old patterns overnight, but I will very much fight for a more productive process that is better for all parties in the long run. Here’s how I think brands can change their approach—and get notably better resutls.

  • Research agencies with your expertise. A quick google search or recommendation can help you narrow the agencies whose work you admire (or are curious to learn more about). Look at their previous body of work to determine who might be the best fit for the opportunity. (Frankly, dedicating one day to doing your own research can genuinely save hundreds of people hundreds of hours.) Choose 2-3 agencies that you’re curious to learn more about and reach out to them. Here are a few more tips to find an agency with the right expertise.)
  • Schedule intro calls to feel them out. Know your goals, prepare the questions you want to ask them, and ask the same questions of all of them. This will help you get a baseline feel for their answer. Ultimately, you want the answers to these core questions: 
      • Do they have the right experience? 
      • Do you like their perspective?
      • Do you share the same values? 
      • Do you gel together?
  • Prioritize partnership over price. If you want to build a mutually beneficial, productive relationship (where your agency feels like an extension of your team), don’t start the conversation by asking for their best pricing on a random set of deliverables (and definitely don’t do it before even meeting them!). Additionally, calling the agency that you select a vendor, or reducing their creative work to a commodity, doesn’t negate the fact that you will be working with people in a highly collaborative relationship. The goal should always be to make each others’ ideas and work better—and to succeed and learn in the process. 

Remember: The best work comes from the best relationships, so be diligent about your research but ultimately go with the people who you feel the most excited and confident to work with. Of course, if you want to start your search with us, you can start by getting to know more about our brand, checking out our FAQs, or reaching out directly. We’re also selective in our partnerships, but we’re always eager to do great work with new people.

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