"RFPs are useless pieces of crap." This was the conclusion of the vice president of marketing at one of the largest online travel sites at a recent event in the US.
It's a provocative statement and, for anyone who's won a client through the RFP process, it may seem counterintuitive.
However, I have to admit that I understand where she’s coming from. We know from our interviews with thousands of business decision-makers each year that those companies that rely less on RFPs and take a more proactive, insight-led approach to winning new clients get better returns on the time they invest in new business.
RFPs were traditionally used by the non-profit sector - such as higher education institutions and government agencies - to appoint suppliers where competitive pricing was the primary concern.
However, they have evolved to become a common way for organisations to procure services.
The idea behind RFPs is a noble one. In theory they level the playing field and minimise bias, enabling companies to compare apples to apples, as it were.
But from the supplier’s perspective, responding to an RFP is expensive and time consuming.
The result is that they often achieve the opposite of their stated aim, and favour large companies over smaller ones with fewer resources to devote to the process.
The demand for micro detail and lengthy set requirements outlined in most RFPs also tends to kill creativity.
In Pearlfinders' 5,000 interviews with UK marketing decision-makers each year, RFPs are sometimes mentioned as part of the process for appointing a new agency.
However, these interviews - with global brands from Unilever to Heineken - reveal that marketing directors now demand a more proactive and entrepreneurial approach from agencies in their prospecting.
Increasingly, the rapport an agency has with decision-makers and influencers across the company, including demonstrating smart, relevant thinking and insights pre-pitch, will be the deciding factor in winning the work while RFPs and procurement are a formality.
One small London-based PR agency we work with refuses to respond to RFPs as a policy, as their founder believes they are simply too time consuming and the process of evaluating agencies is simply too opaque.
If agencies want to keep ahead of the curve, they need to approach new business intelligently, taking proactive measures to ensure that they don't miss out on opportunities. The take-away for agencies as I see it is as follows:
You can't rely on RFPs to keep you afloat
Whether you're the biggest agency in the world, or the new kid on the block, if you spend your days filling out RFPs, you are missing opportunities every day to win new clients or work your way onto a brand's preferred supplier list.
Many brands simply do not appoint agencies this way anymore. Take the PR agency I mentioned earlier; this company has two public sector clients on its books, both of which were won through networking, followed by intelligent relationship-building.
Be proactive and engaged
Nine times out of ten, the winning agency is on the radar long before an RFP is even considered.
You need to really understand your prospect and build trust and rapport long before a review occurs. You will then be able to influence which areas are reviewed, and in many cases bypass the pitch process.
Trying to get up to speed on what a brand is looking for while completing an RFP is like cramming the night before an exam.
Set your own agenda
The best projects are never box-ticking exercises. Not only will proactive new business help you to win more accounts, you will be in a stronger and more trusted position when you do.
If you are appointed because you ticked the right boxes, and said what procurement wanted to hear, you'll be fighting process-driven pedantry for sign-off at every stage.
Even if you are required to engage in the RFP process, don't underestimate the power of additional business intelligence to help you stand out from the crowd.
Getting in the minds of the decision-makers gives you the upper hand and will help you unearth opportunities and angles for new business that might not end up on the next RFP.
You need to ensure your organisation is positioned to take advantage of these opportunities and doesn’t just end up joining the RFP handout queue.