I have been spending a good portion of my work day today working on a marketing Request for Proposal (RFP) for a local educational institution. While I have been reviewing this RFP in detail, I have been reading between the lines, trying to determine what has been predetermined. What were the assumptions that went into creating this document? Did they already decide that the end product needs to be green or the program targeting left-handed people? What vital part of the back story have they failed to include?
The challenge with trying to complete a Request for Proposal is that the prospective client has already thought-through their needs for you and you have to plug your services into their template, which means you automatically start at a disadvantage. They are looking for an expert to solve their problem, but through the RFP process they have already defined their problem in a way that they have already decided on a specific solution and so they are looking for a vendor to provide that unique service. If you don’t fit the solution profile, you are out of the running before you can show what you bring to the problem.
But does it make sense to start with a well-defined set of assumptions in the form of an RFP? When you structure an RFP, are you asking for what you really need, or has the RFP process already boxed you into the wrong corner before you even start? Let’s consider the following example:
A company is struggling to build its sales pipeline. What are they going to do? The head of sales and marketing decides that a kickass advertising campaign is needed to raise market visibility, since the company is new to the market. So they put out an RFP for an ad agency and hire a creative award-winning firm. The firm develops the kickass campaign that gets lots of visibility, a lot of comment in social media and at trade shows, wins a few awards, and helps make the company a household word. However, the phone doesn’t ring and the client company doesn’t get email requests for sales information. They defined their problem – lead generation – and then defined the wrong solution to the problem – advertising. Instead, they should have gone to different marketing creative firms and asked for help with lead generation. In return, they would have gotten more creative proposals with a blended strategy of branding, direct marketing, and prospect outreach that would have added contacts to the sales pipeline.
Or consider the RFP I am currently working with. The assumptions are extensive and the proposal spans a broad range of activities. But is all that activity really necessary? What is the real objective – something that is not clearly spelled out in the RFP. Is it to recruit new students, help with fund-raising, increase community awareness, increase market awareness, or all of the above? If it is all of the above, what is the order of priority?
Through the RFP process, this institution is working on the assumption that they need EVERYTHING, from advertising to PR and social media. But is that an effective use of their budget? And would it make more sense to segment this process into multiple proposals so you can find the best-of-breed service providers for each component: advertising, PR, social media, direct mail, etc? (Let’s face it, no one agency can do all these tasks well.)
So by starting with an RFP process, the company or organization is limiting its options. Rather than trying to define the solution to their problem and shop for vendors to provide the solution, why not solicit expert help in defining their problem as well as the solution?
Okay, there is a risk here. If you bring in various agencies to help you define your problem, the agency will define their problem in terms they understand, and can solve. For example, if you ask an ad agency to help build sales, they will look at the problem in terms of market awareness and offer an advertising-driven solution, since that’s what they know how to do. You ask a PR firm for help with the same problem then you get a PR proposal to address sales growth. However, if you have a smart firm or multiple firms bidding on the same project, you will get a blended recommendation that includes a number of program elements, many of them right on target.
This is where you, as the prospect looking for help, need to set aside your assumptions and take a hard look at the suggestions offered. Assess the recommendations based on what you need and what you know about your problem. Ask for ways to measure results, and see if the metrics address your requirements. See if there are creative ideas in the proposals that you haven’t thought about before and how those ideas change your thinking.
The best proposals are a collaborative process between the prospect and the agency. It’s a dating ritual. You meet, compare notes, learn about one another, and see if you are well suited for one another. If you start with a checklist of predetermined criteria, e.g blonde, blue-eyed, six-feet tall, Master’s degree in engineering,etc., then you may overlook some great potential partners.