The RFP Process: Fair or Foul?

RFPsRecently, KB Concepts participated in an RFP with a national nonprofit unhappy with their current agency of record, who they felt wasn’t giving them the personal attention and care they sought. Since this is exactly the type of client we specialize in, a mutual business colleague who works with the organization connected us and made a strong personal recommendation for our services. During a one-hour video chat with KB Concepts founder Karen Bate, the CEO highly encouraged us to submit a proposal and join the competition.

Previously, KBC had opted out of RFP’s for almost 10 years because the process is so time consuming and often leads to a “Thanks, but no thanks.” This time, our mutual connection and the CEO told us we had a great shot because they were looking for a small grassroots firm like ours that had deep experience working with national nonprofits on important social causes. It was a solid two- to three-year contract on an issue about which Karen and our team were personally passionate. The CEO also mentioned they sought an agency with a better understanding of Austin, TX where they were based, something she felt their current agency lacked.

We held a team meeting and decided to go for it. We knew it would take a lot of (unpaid) time and effort, but believed it was such a great fit for our company we would pull out all the stops and win the contract, especially since two members of our team have family in Austin and visit often.

The deadline was tight and the RFP was comprehensive. In addition to case studies and staff bios, the RFP asked for multiple original ideas and content, and a full year’s timeline and budget. We spent two weeks researching, writing, and coming up with several innovative ideas to best tell this client’s story and reach their target audiences.

Sixteen firms participated; KB Concepts was thrilled to make the cut for the final five. The organization invited us to Austin to present in person to a dozen members of their staff and board. We paid for our own lodging and flights for three team members, for professional graphic design of our powerpoint presentation and for a new organizational video that showcased our previous work. This took lots of staff time, including two full days out of the office for the trip.

Their team took notes throughout our well-rehearsed and dynamic 1/2-hour presentation, including the use of new social media platforms popular among millions of young people that they had never heard of. Our guerrilla marketing ideas based on original research visibly blew them away. The entire staff hugged and thanked us at the end of our presentation. We left feeling confident and celebrated with a festive lunch before heading back to DC.

Two days later, Karen received a call from the CEO informing her that they really appreciated our time and effort, and all our amazing ideas, but they’d decided to go with a local agency. Imagine our dismay with the amount of time and money our small firm invested in this process. It seemed apparent they had a strong bias for a local firm, yet they still put out the RFP and encouraged 16 national firms to submit full proposals. And encouraged us to bring a team of three to Austin to pitch them, instead of setting up a far less expensive video call instead.

It’s time to revamp the RFP process. #TimesUp for organizations asking PR and marketing agencies to create original, creative content for free. 

Do lawyers give legal advice before you hire them? Do architects submit detailed plans in hopes of being hired? Do restaurants give away their best dishes hoping you’ll come back? Of course not. It’s only in PR/marketing/ad agencies where this unfair practice exists.

This funny video “SayNoToSpec” perfectly illustrates the absurdity of requesting experienced professionals to give their work away for free — something we’ve all accepted for too long.

New Rules for RFPs

Instead of asking firms to devote hours of their time and expertise giving away their best ideas without pay, here are some easy ways we can improve the RFP process and make it fair for all:

  • Be clear and concise. The organization and RFP should clearly state the type of agency they are seeking. This allows firms to match their own goals and policies to those of the organization. If there is a desire to hire a local firm (or large firm, or minority-owned firm, etc.), it should be stated clearly in the beginning. This saves time and screens out unnecessary applicants.
  • Concentrate on the track record. Don’t ask for hypothetical challenges or creative ideas. Assess firms based on their previous work, client lists, references and testimonials. Set up interviews to discover the company’s philosophy and personal compatibility. Use the same criteria you would when hiring any professional or sub-contractor.
  • Be reasonable. In our recent case, the RFP requested two or three original creative solutions for each of two core programs, as well as a budget and timeline of our proposed activities for a full year. A company overview, case studies, client lists, testimonials and biographies of team members are reasonable requests; original content, budget breakdown and implementation details are not.
  • Use it as a discovery process. Doing due diligence is commendable, but do it in the right way. The RFP should be a discovery process between two organizations, with both firms getting paid for their work. If the firm wants original content based on hours of research and experience, be prepared to pay for that company’s time and talent.

KB Concepts willingly took the risk this time, but until the process changes, we will never do so again. With those at the table taking notes, it’s entirely possible our original ideas and research will be shared and used by the local PR firm who won this national contract. And that isn’t right. Time to nix the RFP process as it currently stands — let’s all demand a revamp to reflect these reasonable updates.

This post was written by KB Concepts Summer Intern Jean Sa-Nganet

2 Responses

  • When my previous agency pitched, some prospective clients had a budget to cover costs for their short list to participate. This was much more fair. They would short list only 2 or 3 agencies and pay them an agreed amount up front for the time and work. While the agencies would always go above and beyond, it took some of the sting away.

    • That sounds like a great approach, Marisa — we will look for and recommend this the next time we encounter an RFP!

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