Random Rambling rant

The Curse of the Marketing Services RFP

I considered a number of potential titles for this post:

RFPs: The Bane of My Existence

The Dreaded RFP

Think Before You RFP

Issue an RFP with Care

The Request for Proposals (RFP)

The truth is, companies like mine want to receive RFPs for marketing services. It is one of the ways we win the opportunity to work with new clients. Crafting a thoughtful response takes a ton of time, but that’s just part of the process. It is expected. e are happy to do it.

Here’s the Catch

What is also expected is that the issuer of the RFP is going to do their homework before sending out the RFP.  At least once each year my firm will participate in an extensive RFP process only find that, in the end, the organization has decided that they don’t have the budget (or board approval) to move ahead with the marketing initiative. This news comes after my firm has spent an unimaginable amount of time digging in, doing research, drafting plans and timelines, and presenting to various groups.

The latest example of this just happened. This particular healthcare organization was looking for an agency to guide them through a complete rebranding process. Within the RFP we had to give them a detailed account of our rebranding methodology and process, a timeline for each of the three phases of the process, and a budget that gave numbers for each element. Our team spent 78 hours preparing the RFP response and presenting to the organization’s leadership team. (Imagine – this is the equivalent of me dedicating one employee to this assignment for two straight weeks.) On my own, I spent an entire weekend, two ten-hour days, writing the initial draft of the RFP response. I did it because I knew that our team and experience made us the perfect match for this rebranding assignment. (Now imagine that at least two other marketing firms went through the same process – dedicating a similar level of resources.)

Last week we received an email (not a phone call), letting us know that the organization’s board of directors had determined, after reviewing the proposals of the three finalists, that they did not have the budget to take on this project over the next year. So the project is postponed until August 2016. No one was awarded the contract.

If this was the first time something like this had happened, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. With that in mind, here are some tips for anyone considering issuing an RFP:

  • Have a firm budget in mind and share it with the agencies that are submitting responses. Please don’t make them create an imaginary budget out of thin air; that’s not how the real world works. You have financial realities that you operate within. Challenge the agencies to do exceptional work within those constraints! One mark of a good marketing firm is that they can do great work with a limited budget. It takes creativity and strategic thinking, two qualities I’m sure most of us would like to find in a marketing partner.
  • Make sure the budget is approved by all of the powers that be.
  • Make sure that your leadership is in support of this specific marketing initiative. Don’t use the RFP process to try to sway the thinking of your leadership. If you fail, you will have wasted the time of several marketing firms. This is another pitfall that I’ve run into on many occasions.
  • Don’t require the agencies to develop speculative creative, unless you are willing to pay them for their time. Why? First of all, the spec creative will be meaningless because they haven’t had an opportunity to do a true deep dive into your business. Second, our time is our only asset at an agency. To require us to give you creative concept for no charge is absurd.
  • Don’t ask the agencies to draft a strategy and a plan within their responses. Our thinking and creativity are our primary assets. To give that away in a proposal is a very bad business decision. The company issuing the RFP should be hiring us to access our thinking.

RFPs are tricky business. In my line of work, you love them and you hate them. I am forever grateful to those professionals who craft thoughtful RFPs and are considerate of the firms participating in the process.


6 comments on “The Curse of the Marketing Services RFP

  1. Dan,

    Thank you for writing this. I understand and thrive on the fact that we’re in a competitive industry, and agree that we either love or hate RFPs. Your last point on asking for strategy is particularly meaningful to me. Not only is this what we are paid to do and how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors, but it’s not really a logical request. Our strategy at this juncture would be more speculation, than based on facts or research. It’s like diagnosis a car repair without looking under the hood.

  2. Dan, I feel your pain 🙂 It seems like Q12015 has seen an uptick in this type of what we loving refer to as a “goat rodeo.” Great suggestions.

    • Amen, Dan. Your comment about asking for free strategy is one my pet peeves.

      Well done. I’m sure this was therapeutic to write in some ways as well. I guess it’s part of the business, but the whole RFP reinforces the myth that our industry is a commodity. It’s the same reason I despise setting up booths at trade shows.

      My best,


      Mike Milligan President | 920.544.8102 | mikem@golegato.com

  3. Stay strong!! Thanks for this.

  4. Dan, I understand your concerns and can relate, sadly. Marketing and advertising have often had to “sing for their supper” but it seems that some clients want the full opera!

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