Thursday, November 15th, 2007

RFP, R.I.P.

RFP, R.I.P.
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As a studio matures, one of the nicest benefits is in the luxury of actively “choosing” which projects to engage in and which ones to pass on. In our first years of business, I would have scoffed at such a notion, but after some experience, we’ve learned that some business isn’t worth having.

The worst kind of business, in my humble opinion, is that which beckons in the form of an RFP. For those who aren’t familiar with RFPs – I can’t imagine many who aren’t – the acronym is derived from “Request For Proposals”. Talk to most experienced design managers and they’ll feel similarly: RFPs simply don’t work when it comes to purchasing design services.

Why RFPs are bad for designers

For many who have just started their design studios, RFPs may seem like a viable way of landing new business. At smashLAB, we once spent our share of time on these; when you are just starting out, it often seems that there is little choice but to do so. We were even lucky enough to “win” a few projects this way.

The problems with RFPs are many-fold. First of all, the batting-average on them is typically quite poor, as many organizations take the “spaghetti” method, and toss the RFP document out to everyone and anyone. Given how many responses organizations receive to such documents, they often make the process as capricious and time-consuming as a grade-school essay. If you miss filling-in a box you’ll find yourself “out of the running”; likewise, if you have an idea that doesn’t fit the format there’s generally no provision (or interest) for such insights.

I once read that if you want to sell suits, find people who buy suits. Avoid trying to convert those who don’t want them, no matter how badly they might need one. Organizations who utilize RFPs to solicit the interest of design firms often don’t understand purchasing creative services. As such, you’ll find yourself “going bonkers” responding to inconsequential questions and requirements. Think I’m exaggerating? We recently received an RFP that requested a breakout cost for creating each individual link on a website project. I kid you not.

Some will argue that these groups simply need designers to take time and explain important issues in the design process. This is reasonable. Unfortunately, with RFPs you are rarely able to speak with a person directly, and are often forced to send inquiries formally, via email or fax. This limits the ability to engage in a more complex discussion.

Of course, you are free to bid on RFPs should you choose; however, I’d ask why you would want to. There’s plenty of work out there. Wouldn’t you rather work with those who want your specific offering, instead of spending your days struggling to earn those projects aimed at the lowest bidder?

Why RFPs are terrible for design buyers

RFPs aren’t inherently bad things. In purchasing hard goods like fleet vehicles, fixtures, or bridges with detailed specifications, they make a great deal of sense. The challenge with creative work, however, is that the solution is often informed by the process, and as such is difficult to postulate prior to beginning. Consider a client who requests a website, but in fact would be better served by a low-cost brochure. Boilerplate RFPs don’t generally allow flexibility for such opportunities.

But it doesn’t end there; the RFP process results in mountains of additional work for the purchaser. In sending out the lengthy, detailed documents, the purchaser is left with loads of lengthy, detailed responses to review. Departments are forced to sort the materials and build matrices for evaluation while committees are mobilized to read through the seas of paperwork.

And what is found as they review these materials? Misunderstanding about their needs; countless forms; platitudes and rhetoric aiming to impress or bamboozle; and ultimately very little that really addresses the more complex challenges. What else could one expect? There was no discussion or exchange of ideas, just a document with large boxes to fill, and hungry bidders left to guess the “right” response, in hopes of earning a little work.

RFPs are endemic of an oppositional structure that rewards those who fill boxes, but not those who look for deeper awareness or insights that might result in a more effective solution. In our experience, organizations that use the RFP process to purchase creative services often find that their expectations are not met.

As it happens, those compelled to respond to RFPs are often at the bottom of the barrel. Design firms that are in demand typically don’t waste their time with the process.

Better ways to hire designers

I can hear what some are asking already, “Okay, so RFPs are bad, but we still need a process for purchasing design. What should we do?” I have some thoughts on this topic and would like to provide a few suggestions.

First of all, determine what the goals of a project are, and pre-select a few firms that would meet your needs. Doing so puts the initial onus on you, as you have to do some leg-work, but it will prove worthwhile in the long-run. Research design portals like those of the GDC in Canada, or the AIGA in the United States, to see which firms have a good track record. Call peers and ask who they work with, and what the relationship is like. Relationships aren’t a big deal when you are buying cement, but when it comes to design, they are paramount to achieving effective results (and foregoing ulcers).

Pre-select a group of three proponents, and bring them in for a general discussion. Ask them to clearly articulate past efforts and their working process. Look at each studio’s work and see if they have the capability to solve the messaging challenges you are facing. Feel free to ask hard questions and look for someone who both fits your needs and “feels” right. Of course, one is equally prudent to check with their current clients and see if their promises hold water.

Talk about budgets, expectations and timelines; there’s no point in engaging a high-cost firm for weeks of discussion to later find that your budget wouldn’t work with their size of operation. I also suggest keeping things open and informal until you narrow down your choice, upon which time all of the details and legalities can be addressed.

A design team can serve as an excellent partner, and any good one will look for ways to help you accomplish your goals in a cost-effective manner. When you reduce design to a line-item, however, you miss out on ever having such a relationship with your provider.

Special bonus: the smashLAB boilerplate response to RFPs

This past week we’ve had some potential clients get in touch; as such, I’ve been engaged in ongoing discussions with these groups. At the same time, we’ve oddly received a number of RFPs that we’ve had to find a method of quickly (and politely) responding to.

As a result, I’ve drafted a standard response to the stock RFPs, which saves me from having to rewrite it each time. It is included below for you to utilize should you too decide to let the RFP “rest in peace”.

Hi (INSERT CLIENT NAME),

Thanks for the email and interest in (INSERT STUDIO NAME). We’d love to help you with your upcoming project; unfortunately, we don’t respond to open RFPs any longer.

In the past we’ve found responses to RFPs to be very time consuming, which is difficult given the demand we’ve had for our work in recent years. Committing time to respond thoughtfully to all of the criteria set forth in these documents is simply not a good use of our resources.

Additionally, we find that RFPs don’t allow us build a good understanding of the client’s goals and how we can work to help them most effectively. We find that our current clients are coming to us looking to build more of a partnership, as they have already done some leg work and feel that we are the right fit for them.

I apologize for not being able to take part; that being said, I wish you the best with this project. :-)

Cheers!

(INSERT YOUR NAME)

Until next time

I suspect that many of the parties who issue RFPs do so less than willingly. Some are limited by policy that mandates their use in the interest of fairness and transparency. Government organizations and those who may represent the public interest would likely fall into this category.

That being acknowledged, such policies are anachronistic, and hardly in the interest of the parties they were intended to protect. Business continues to evolve and I suggest that policy should do the same. Perhaps we have to loosen our grip on the “rules” and instead look at what’s most practical, efficient and beneficial for all involved.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. bg says:

    Problem is the system won’t change because the people responsible on the client side aren’t creatives and they wouldn’t know how to go about changing even if they could. They only understand things like process, regulations and company policies. For them, that’s just the way it’s been done forever, and as you know, the business world is about the status quo, avoiding risk on the unknown, (aka, a new way of doing anything) and only doing what's been done before.

  2. Geof Harries says:

    It depends where you live. Here in Whitehorse, Yukon it's a government town. Most of the adult population works for either the municipal, territorial or federal government, or an organization funded by government. Hence, the majority of work available is government projects (they pay quite well) with commercial gigs being few and far between.

    That said, my company rarely bids on RFPs because they take days to write and organize, and that's time not well spent because, as you said, there's a good chance you will lose. Bye, bye billable time.

    For my services, there's enough work outside of the Yukon that occupies available time and resources. I also pick up commercial projects locally when they appear. That's the benefit of being small I guess!

  3. cat says:

    When I first started out in web, I participated in RFPs. They were a pain in the butt to do.

    But, they did have their up side. Coming from print, I was new to the web so was forced to go to my team and ask a zillion questions in order to fill out the RFPs.

    It was tedious going, but it did educate me on what's available out there. And that's the only way I'd see RFPs as a benefit to a company - training juniors.

    The last RFP I participated in, I took control. I explained to the client how time consuming RFPs were. And if they wanted me to respond, I had to know my team was one of their top choices. Didn't hear from them for awhile. Then they came back to us on our terms. As a top choice. We won the project.

  4. Navin Harish says:

    I can see why you are so against the RFP bet I have to say that are not always bad. I have worked in the elearning industry for four years and we have responded to a lot of RFPs both from people who know what they want and those who don't. The people who generally know what they want like RFP because they want information in a format that allows them to compare what different vendors have to offer.
    In some cases people don't know what they want and the RFP is usually a CYA activity. I have seen RFPs where the client wanted us to quote for images according to theor size in kbs and code per line. We have told such clients that it is not possible to send the quote the way they want as it could be as impractical as buying clothes by kilograms. We have ignired the format and quoted in our format and have won the business too.

  5. beth says:

    The only thing I've liked when working with RFPs is the budget is pretty explicitly stated from the get go. It allows me to immediately rule out people who think a good website can be had for the cost of a vacuum cleaner.

  6. Keith Parent says:

    It definitely seems that the real issue is client awareness and RFP's are just a symptom of the disease known as ignorance. I've worked with many start-up clients and much of the process involved "teaching" them what is available, possible, and suitable. Taking the time involved in responding to an RFP could be the time spent to sit face to face with a client and explain the appropriate process and the intrinsic benefits that result while simultaneously showing your professionalism and integrity. If this isn't a possible alternative scenario, then it's more than likely a job you could do without as design by committee is often tedious and more time consuming than the job is worth.

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  8. Pete says:

    I would hardly call those Government policies 'anachronistic'. The key part of (the New Zealand) Government's procurement policies is to encourage 'open and effective competition' amongst all suppliers of a service. How can/could Government achieve that without the RFP process? How could 'young' companies even get their foot in the door with a no-bids system in place?

    During my time in Government I've had senior managers suggest or engage with companies based on relationship, which (as far as I'm concerned) aren't/weren't suitable for the project. In those instances where there was an actual project, it took more money, was longer and left a huge mess for the internal teams to clean up.

    However, I'm not really here to defend every and all RFPs - I've seen and played my part in some terrible ones and some good ones. The key is, either the organisation should be up front and honest about their explicit requirements or be open to say they have no idea what they want - in which case they shouldn't have gone to RFP and instead scoped the project before hand.

  9. Mike Land says:

    Having been on both sides of the issue - bidding and taking bids - I agree wholeheartedly. However, they are a necessary (well, not necessary, but a part of the current bureaucratic process) in securing contractors in the U.S. Gov't. And not a fun one - much like running full speed headfirst into a wall over and over. The rules for answering questions, making contact with vendors, etc are remarkably antiquated and rigid. It's actually amazing that any work even gets done. Sigh. Congrats on moving past responding to them.

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  11. Clay says:

    The worst part about RFPs is when, either explicitly or implicitly, the ugly specter of spec work becomes part of the proposal.

    The place where I work is unfortunately occasionally guilty of resorting to spec in order to try and improve our bids. Inevitably, those seem to become an arms race of which agency can make a flashier and more complete presentation, rather than who is actually going to best understand the client's needs.

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  13. Shane says:

    "Research design portals like those of the GDC in Canada, or the AIGA in the United States, to see which firms have a good track record. "

    So you are saying that you should only hire companies in the US or Canada? In a global market a RFP can server as a form of interview rather than a specific spec document. And it is not so much the value or specs that matter as much as your view and wording that will cut the deal.

    I don't respond to all the RFP's we get but I do respond to some, and I always bid high to make sure I get it on merit rather than on budget. One thing I often do is when I receive a RFP that shows that the client has not done their homework I send a response stating that they would benefit from more preparation and possibly with some professional consultation...then I offer my services for this. So even the RFPs that I don't bid on I can still get some business from.

    It is a delicate subject, RFPs will not stop existing, if you turn your back to them it is up to your own discretion according to your business model. I have some long lasting clients that started as RFPs.

  14. Hi Shane,

    The key word there is "like". I'm by no means asking clients to only work with Canadian or American designers; rather, I'm suggesting seeking out professional design associations as they typically can connect buyers with qualified practicioners. :-)

    Cheers,

    Eric

  15. Shane says:

    Eric, Thanks for clearing that up. My bad, did not catch the emphasis on 'like'. Being an oversees operator I may be a bit touchy on this subject, I need to work on that :)

    Thanks.

  16. Patrick says:

    This is a great a point and a commendable approach to RFPs. We have found that RFPs are more work than they're worth, and the clients who make them usual frame their problem incorrectly.
    It is important for a client to understand that they don't yet know what a design firm can offer, or creativity in general. RFPs lead to Specs, lead to mediocre results.

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  18. Hi, Toni here, just discovered this blog, interesting stuff - Thanks :)

    Some RFP's are absolutely terrible and as you say, the person writing them has no idea of the process of good web design. Usually they have completely underestimated the project in terms of design and timescale. I have quite often felt that they have spent far to long trying to write the fancy brief; only leaving themselves a month or so to complete the project. This process should be done with the designer. In these cases we always state that we would be most interested in doing the job but the deadline is too tight for the project. Some have come back to us with a new deadline and we have been able to help them.
    You are right too that they have closed themselves off from different design approaches to the project.
    Anyway sorry to waffle on.....
    Toni

  19. Peter says:

    I’m currently working as a consultant for a midwest state government, and I can see first hand how the RFP process for our tourism department directly hurts the state’s image.

    I can think of three very capable agencies in the area that could create great work that would actually position the state as a destination. Or develop a great brand identity. I’ve spoken to CDs in all of these places begging them to at least throw their hats into the ring. They would all love to work for the state. They have a great affinity for this place. It’s in their best interest to improve the image of the state. And they’re more than willing to be flexible with the work and billing to accommodate budgets and timelines. But all three won’t touch the work because they know how labor intensive the process is and how likely the work will be given to whoever walks in and throws a lowball bid.

    It all comes down to two qualifiers: cheapest and capable. So the cheap agency with enough warm bodies gets the work. Not the agency that would assess what the state needs and respond with messaging/design that reflects those needs.

    When it comes to advertising, design and marketing, the RFP process is an elaborate system built to fail while covering your ass.

  20. Able says:

    Insightful post! I think it would also be helpful to attach your "Better ways to hire designers" section to your reply to give them a good alternative to the RFP.

  21. darryl ohrt says:

    Awesome post. I'm taking your lead, and going to develop a stock response to these for our agency, as well. Excellent!

  22. Sofus Graae says:

    NIce article - Personally I have never been directly involved in the decision making of accepting a RFP - but I recently came across a site called http://www.rfp-templates.com and thought it shows how much people care for their service they want to pay for when using templates...

  23. I've had several opportunities to help potential clients write an RFP. I always recommend that they include a solid overall budget and that the RFP is a request for, say, “if we gave you 80k and this is our situation, what might you propose we do with the budget? How would you determine that, etc.” That way, the client has a baseline to measure responses against.

    In addition, this doesn’t have to mean that all 80k is used. It may be that the client only actually needs 60k of this work, so they can refine the budget after getting the proposals.

    But it allows the client to see the thinking and how the relationship might work, which are the two things so hard to measure when the dollars vary so much.

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  25. Michael says:

    Great points mentioned above! Check out what Trumpet did to reverse the process. A Request for Problems..

    http://www.trumpetgroup.com/rfp

    The Golden RFP: Trumpet's Request For Problem

    Everybody says the way marketing agencies work needs to be reinvented. Yes. So we’ve changed the things that aren’t working, and re-engineered around ideas that drive business opportunities –
    beginning with “hello.” Our solution takes the form of the traditional Request For Proposal (RFP) with one big difference: It’s from the agency. Why? Because the traditional RFP is often the first
    step toward a bad relationship built on superficialities. Too much swimsuit competition, not enough talent. Trumpet proposes a new way: Request for Problem.

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  27. Alan Stuart says:

    me likey. i sent around our agency to see if we can do the same, but i doubt it will happen immediately.

  28. iain says:

    I just hummed and hawed about an rfp that I wasn't sure about... I've Just sent off the response as above and feel a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders!

    thanks for the great article.

  29. Payrolling says:

    Great article. Thanks to Eric. Its very obvious that many people hate RFPs, but I know some guys in this business who like them. Still a great article. Thanks!

  30. Jaak says:

    For the most part, everyone agrees: inconsequential questions on the RFP, and not having creative solutions are a huge problem.

    This usually means that the issuing organization didn't do it's homework before it posted the RFP to the organization, on Merx, or Biddingo.

    This can usually be resolved during the Question and Answer period. But for inflexible organizations, design firms should just walk away.

    As for the process being too open....making it purely invitational can be very problematic for public sector areas. How would anyone feel reading a Toronto Star story about how the government excluded firms from competing for opportunities?

    Being a proposal consultant, some of my clients have made it very easy: the RFP is clear in what it asks for, allows for some creative solutions, and doesn't have useless questions. Otherwise, it's a no-go.

    Cheers.

  31. Don says:

    I think the worst experience I had with a federal government RFP is when they stated a number of "mandatory requirements" had to be met or the respondent would be found "non-compliant". SO i read the mandatory requirements, realized that I would not qualify. Later I find out, with only a few days left before the closing date, they change the "mandatory" requirements . They did not extend the closing date.

    I was furious, but their answer was that the so called mandatory requirements were flexible???? Why did they call them mandatory in the first place???? This is a true story and not all that uncommon with Federal Govt RFP's.

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  36. Mark Bell says:

    You raise some very valid points. Unfortunately the advent of the RFP allowed procurement professionals to slack off on doing their homework by requesting proposals from Vendors. We are not sure what we need exactly so lets ask the supplier to provide a solution. Believe it or not most purchasing people dislike RFP's as well as they are difficult to evaluate across the board.

    As you mentioned, you bid higher whereas if you knew exactly what the expectation is you would be able to quote a more reasonable or direct cost. for more free rfp templates and forms visit http://www.rfqpro.com to get your free pack.

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