How can clients get the most from their RFP and pitch process?

By Robert Kellner, Managing Director of octOpus.

thepitchRequest for Proposals (RFPs) and the pitch process, too often abused by clients, universally loathed by agencies. But it doesn’t have to be this way if a few basic principles are followed, making it more worthwhile for clients and fairer for agencies.  I’ve been on both sides of the fence many times and I’d consider the following 6 points to be among the most important:

1. Deciding how many agencies to invite.

If I had to pick a magic number, it would be 3. Any less and you risk not getting a satisfactory proposal, anymore and it probably means you haven’t shortlisted your agencies properly. Yes, this infers you should do your homework first by only inviting those agencies you feel can deliver your needs. This could be based on reviewing credentials (by first asking 5 to 7 agencies for a credentials proposal) or by asking trusted sources for referrals before shortlisting to 3, to submit a full proposal.

As a client, you need to seriously ask yourself the question if you have the time and commitment to properly consider 4, 5, or more proposals. I recently sat through a client briefing as one of 7 agencies being invited to pitch. We walked out of the meeting and walked away from the process. I trust our ability to compete successfully but I didn’t trust the process. I have no doubt most of the best agencies in that room did the same thing. Hardly the best result for the client.

2. Asking for a printed proposal or a presentation.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other but be clear what you will be reviewing and basing your decision on. I’d always strongly encourage clients to allow agencies the opportunity to physically present their ideas especially if creative work is involved. Besides you want to meet them and gauge the rapport. But don’t waste your agencies time asking for a written proposal if you’re not going to take time to read it. My first question at the start of every pitch presentation is whether the client has read the proposal. Too often the answer is no, which begs the question why a client would create an earlier deadline for submission only to wait for the presentation date to make an assessment.

3. Involve the true decision makers.

First, make sure those who will ultimately make the final decision are involved in the whole process. That starts with ensuring that they approve the brief. How can you hope to select the best agency for the job if they haven’t been briefed according to what the key decision makers are looking for?

Secondly, it means they must make the time to attend a pitch presentation.  If you’ve stuck to the rule of not asking more than 3 agencies to present then this should not be too onerous a task.  If time is an issue limit the presentations to 30 minutes each, better that then not having the key people there at all.

4. Be clear about the format.

If there is one thing I have consistently found missing in most RFPs  or briefs is a clear indication of what you want in the proposal. As unbelievable as that seems most RFPs provide lots of detail about the organization, the project, and the eventual scope of work but don’t list the exact requirements of the proposal. Do you want to see a list of past clients, case studies (and how many), costs (what format and level of detail), if creative ideas or designs are expected and what exactly, i.e. how many options?

The best approach is to be specific and create a format to follow. It doesn’t just make it easier on the agency but also a lot easier to evaluate for clients, when there is a consistent approach. Sounds logical doesn’t it?

5. Should you be asking for creative design? If so, on what basis?

It is one thing asking an agency to put together their relevant case studies, develop a methodology, provide some conceptual ideas and calculate the costs but it’s a whole other thing asking for creative design as part of the pitch. It’s an established part of the advertising industry and it’s not going anywhere but some clients expectations are simply unrealistic and plain unfair even bordering on unethical.

I was a client for most of my career, so I get it. When it comes to a new campaign, a launch event and activation, etc., you want to know the agency has an idea that you like and you can work with. But you should not expect the creative you get at the pitch stage to be the final perfect solution. The agency will likely need the time to get to know you and your business a lot better before really finding the big idea you are looking for. As long as you are satisfied the agency has demonstrated they are capable of coming up with the great type of creative work you seek, then the process has played its role.

Asking for multiple creative routes, i.e. anything more than 2, serves little purpose than dilute agencies time and focuses their finite resources on quantity instead of quality.

Now, for the most burning controversial question of all. Should clients pay for creative pitches?  Since I’m now on the agency side I’m going to be biased, although I even had the same view as a client. I firmly believe that it’s in the clients best interests to devote say 5% of their project budget (depending on its total size) on the pitch process by paying for creative. Some provisos though – only once you’ve shortlisted to a maximum of 3 agencies, it doesn’t necessarily buy the rights to IP (and therefore allow clients to give one agency’s ideas to another) and it should usually apply to larger term or important projects (not) short tactical initiatives.

You might be amazed at how much more committed agencies will be and how much better the quality of their work is. I can assure you they’ll work so much harder for your business knowing what kind of client you’ll be and that you too are taking the process seriously. You’ve all heard the saying ‘you get what you pay for’.

6. Provide feedback.

The least you should be willing to do is provide some honest feedback on why an agency wasn’t successful. If they’ve taken the time to respond to your RFP it is a common professional courtesy and good business practice to help them improve should you ever invite them again.

Clients should clearly indicate in advance when a final decision will be made and stick to it or at least provide an update if the decision is delayed.

Unfortunately, even this seems too much to ask for some clients, who need to be chased simply for a final decision.

In Summary

The main bit of advice I’d give clients is to treat the process as a collaborative one and see the agencies as potential long term partners.  This way you it shows that you treat them with respect and professionalism, which in turn will mean you’ll get the best out of them.