For those of us in the service industry, we know too well the ins and outs of a request for proposal (RFP) – and what it really means for an agency. I have come to view an RFP as comparable to entering a beauty contest. The potential client asks multiple agencies to show them what they can produce – then they’ll think about it.

From experience, when first invited to be part of an RFP, the immediate feeling is exhilaration – this is quickly followed by dread. The amount of work required to develop a quality RFP is phenomenal. The time and energy that is devoted to this non-profitable account adds an unnatural amount of stress to the agency business. Gone are the days when companies would compensate businesses to be included in an RFP – long gone!

What is the real purpose of an RFP?

Having worked in agencies for over a quarter of a century, I have often seen RFPs go out in an effort to simply validate the client’s current agency. In my opinion, this is quite disrespectful. It takes away valuable hours from the agencies invited to participate. Hours are what service agencies base their profitably on. Asking outside agencies to be part of an RFP, when there is actually no intent to change the current agency, is unethical.

If the RFP is genuinely for the purpose of garnering a new agency, why is this approach taken? Is it to determine “the fit” of the team within the group? If that’s the case, why not simply meet up over a series of dinners or lunches? Law firms hire interns this way. The potential intern is taken to dinner and interviewed in a group setting. It works and it’s fun. More importantly it allows the team players on both sides to get to know one another. The client/agency partnership needs to be based on positive relationships in order to achieve a successful collaboration.

What if the request for proposal is to determine how creative an agency can be? For those of us in the world of branding and advertising, clients can determine this from viewing our previous work and hearing about what was given as the brief. If that isn’t sufficient, perhaps it would be more advantageous to provide the agency with an actual project, complete with delivery requirements and timelines? This would allow the business team to assess how the agency actually works – if the agency is able to deliver on time and provide the necessary added value required by the team and the brand. This approach can be implemented by asking two or three chosen agencies to each complete a different project.

In recent years, procurement has often spearheaded the RFP process – assessing services similar to securing a print provider. The amount of input they have in the final selection is not always clear or consistent. However, the services provided by an agency cannot be compared to printing. Therefore, nothing is equal. It’s not about the hourly rate, it’s about the idea, the strategy, the commitment, and the partnership the agency can provide. No two agencies are alike. Service businesses often build their model on value. The value agencies deliver is quite different, making it difficult to assess them in equal terms.

What are you thoughts on the RFP process? Any idea how businesses can move away from this model of assessing agencies? I’d like to hear about them.