RFPs: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Survive Without Them

I wonder how many corporate communications executives have actually ever answered a request for proposal (aka RFP).

RFPs are a hot topic these days.  They seem to be back in vogue among corporations seeking new public relations representation.

When an economy is flush, like it was during the dot.com boom, you couldn’t buy an RFP.

Back then, a typical prospect (usually a venture funded start-up with no customers/revenue, but an alarming burn rate) didn’t have the interest or time in generating an RFP, never mind wading through 40 pages of “creative” writing – and some boilerplate – to determine which of the seven agencies that responded would make the highly coveted pitch round.  They wanted to move from the “we’ve put up our shingle and we have money” phase to the “getting media attention” phase asap.

Today, however, it’s a very different story.  Many companies have the time (and if not, the smart ones are making the time), are generally not in a particular hurry to buy, and know the value of a thoughtful agency review process.

RFP to the rescue.

But the issuance of an RFP by a corporation doesn’t guarantee a thoughtful agency review process.  For lots of companies, an RFP is nothing more than a safety net and gives the prospect the illusion of a well-thought out process that is going to yield a great result.

In her most recent post, Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of Public Relations Firms, points out that while RFP’s may serve a real function, that “doesn’t mean all RFPs are created equal.”

Experienced agency professionals know a great RFP when they see one.  A quick scan by a seasoned eye reveals if the RFP was built by a committee, if it’s a mashup or if it’s a document that truly tries to understand, as Will Burns of Ideasicle says, the “soul of an agency.”

Mr. Burns comes out of the advertising agency world, and perhaps in that world, a well-written RFP can reveal the soul of an agency.  It’s somewhat different in public relations.  Even the world’s finest RFP is going to have a difficult time bringing out the soul of a PR agency.  That isn’t going to happen until the pitch round, when agency and prospect come face-to-face. That’s where chemistry takes over.

But a well-written RFP and well-written response will give the prospect more than enough information to decide if an agency should be invited to the pitch round.

RFP’s with questions that are hard to understand, or that are redundant or generic, makes everyone’s job harder.

Often, time invested on the front end of a process makes the back end go much smoother.  Before issuing an RFP, a company ought to consider sharing it with a PR agency veteran.  Perhaps a consultant who has had new business development responsibility in a past life. Or they may attempt to pretend they are a PR agency and attempt to fill it out themselves to make sure it’s an RFP that makes sense.

Better RFPs yield better results. I think that’s something we can all agree on.

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