by Kristin Brighton on July 18, 2011

As a state-wide creative marketing and communications business, we get approximately 20 requests for proposal (RFPs) a year from local, state, and federal governmental agencies, universities, associations, chambers of commerce, nonprofits and private businesses. For governmental agencies, rules and regulations require them to put large projects out on bid to avoid corruption and so taxpayers feel their money is being well spent. Likewise, private associations and organizations (many of which are nonprofits) want to feel they are spending their money wisely, too.

However, not everyone needs the RFP process to make a decision as to which marketing, advertising, or communications agency is the best match for them. We contend that unless you are legally bound to do so, it isn’t in your best interest.

Likewise, for companies like New Boston, investing time and energy responding to every RFP that comes along might not be a wise business move.

Let me explain both sides…

For businesses and organizations who put projects out on RFP:
When working with a different agency for every major project (or every phase of an ongoing project), your message will have little continuity, your look won’t be cohesive, and you’ll lose a lot of time getting new people up to speed. The number one reason for this is truly ego-based. It’s human nature that every consecutive creative person who touches a project will want to “improve” upon what he or she inherited, because we all have a different set of talents, skills, and styles, and most of us are confident we can make someone else’s work better — our way. So even with a rigid graphics standards guide in place, each change of staff will produce a slightly different end product.

One reason that chambers of commerce, nonprofits, or cities often repeatedly go out on bid is to avoid offending members/sponsors, avoid being accused of favoritism. While we understand that often organizations want to be diplomatic and spread their projects among various businesses, changing vendors all the time wastes a lot of people’s time and dilutes the effectiveness of the final project — which also wastes money.

Each time companies choose to seek out an new agency through a strict RFP process, they are eliminating — and not benefiting from — back-and-forth discussion with very smart people who already know and understand their particular need. It becomes a top-down communications stream, instead of a dialogue about how to best meet the goals.

For businesses who receive RFPs:
When we get an RFP from a governmental agency, we devote between 25 and 50 hours drafting and submitting our response. If we are selected as a finalist, we put together a presentation and take multiple staff members to an interview. So, we now have invested something like $5,000 on the job before it is even awarded. Multiply this by 10 to 20 projects a year, and that can be a major operational expense that must be made up somewhere else.

Given that agencies from all over the state and nation are competing for every RFP issued, the odds your firm will be selected — if you have a) never worked with that agency before and b) don’t have some special experience that is similar to the project — are fairly small. So, in other words, companies have to be very selective and only go after the projects that are an obvious fit — or projects that they want badly enough to make them worth the gamble.

What’s a better approach?
Consider instead sending out an RFQ — a request for qualifications. This process allows agencies to submit a summary of their interest in the project, their qualifications, and relevant samples of their work. These responses don’t take nearly as much time as a full proposal, and many parts of them can be recycled.

Review the RFQ responses, pick your finalists, and then schedule a “first date” with each company. Give us a chance to get to know one another, to ask pressing questions, to pose ideas and get your responses. You’ll learn a lot about us — who we are, what we’re like to work with, how we would structure your project — through this exchange of ideas. Likewise, we’ll get to know you and that will help us be better informed about the dynamics of the situation.

After these sit-downs, personally call the agencies you think are the best fit and ask them if they’d be interested in giving you a formal bid. Don’t assume they will be. At this point, both parties need to have the option to politely decline — there just might not be any chemistry.

When we have a chance to sit down with clients, ask questions, share a meal or coffee, and really discuss goals, we have a much more successful partnership from the beginning. Sometimes we find that the original project — a campaign, a website, social media development — that brought the client to us isn’t really the first step. Sometimes market research or branding development really needs to be done first to make the project more effective. Together, we can decide how to best proceed.

Basically, this process makes choosing your agency more like dating and less like an arranged marriage. In the long run, everyone should live happier ever after.