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Why the RFP is a Waste of Time

February 19, 2014

If you are like most marketers you are likely to conduct an agency search in the next 2 or 3 years.

And, like most marketers, you might get it wrong if you don’t engage a professional search-consultant to advise you. An experienced consultant has an in-depth knowledge of agencies and talent that outsiders don’t, and that results in a better decision. I have been on both sides of the big “pitch” to know how hard it is to pick the right agency.

It’s funny how hiring practices have changed dramatically over the years, but pitching remains comparatively stagnant: the traditional approach to selecting an agency has been around for almost 50 years and it is completely out-of-date. It is complex and selection is determined by a superficial context. The agency search process is too slow for a marketing world that functions at the speed of light, and it is too wasteful for companies – and agencies.It can take five or six months, or even a year to finish, at the cost of diverted attention from the company’s business and executive time.

With a streamlined but detailed protocol, a well-managed agency-search can be completed in just four to six weeks.

Nonessential items such as the RFP (Request For Proposal) make the typical pitch ridiculously long and inefficient. It’s a new media world, so why do companies and search-consultants still rely on the old-fashioned RFP?

Most RFPs sent to ad agencies are pretty standard, asking for facts, figures, management bios, client list, recent wins and losses, capabilities, strategic approach, case histories and examples of work.

The RFP as we know it is an inferior tool for evaluating agencies. It’s obsolete. It might give a rough idea of an agency’s past accomplishments, and these can inform somewhat of what’s ahead. However, you’re not hiring an agency’s past, you’re hiring its future. And that future is more likely to be a reflection of an agency leadership’s vision, the people it hires, and their willingness to embrace what’s coming rather than preserve what’s been.

And, steer clear of the gauntlet of “long list” and semi-Finalists presentations. It’s tempting to see every agency under the sun,but it would transform the search into a beauty contest that the agencies would try, and probably succeed, to fiddle with it. Instead, an independent consultant who has in-depth knowledge of agencies and their capabilities should be able to put together with the client a shortlist the best four or five contenders based on the client’s brief.

A smart search involves facilitating a number of workshops with agency leadership and the day-to-day teams over four to six weeks. That gives the marketer an opportunity to evaluate how the agencies develop strategy and creative work, how they think, how fast they work, and just how passionate about the business they are.

Some companies ignore meetings with agency leaders during the process, dismissing the need to hear what they have to say, “since they won’t be involved in out business.”That’s a mistake. Any mid-to-large agency can always go and hire great day-to-day talent if it needs it. Leadership is another matter. It is more consistent.  If you don’t like the leadership you won’t like the agency.

You’d want to hear the leadership’s views on creativity, innovation, inspiration, insight and intuition. You’d want to know what do they think is good advertising, and how do they establish the standards that insure that bad advertising is never shown to the client.

You’d want to know if they have a clear sense of the new consumer, and the technologies and platforms that make listening more important than talking. A forward thinking leadership should have a pretty good point of view about how social media, technology, and the migration away from interruptive messages are changing communications.

Since you’re hiring for the future, you’d want to know that they are prepared for it.

How is their business model adopting digital? What practices have been added and what have been abandoned? How has the creative brief evolved? Are they recruiting differently now? How many digital natives does the agency hire?  You definitely don’t want to select the wrong agency and play catch up with technology.

In as much as a good client/agency relationship is about “chemistry and interaction,” one can’t ignore the day-to-day agency team either.

You might want to give them a creative assignment and scrutinize their solution. You’d want to find out how passionate they are for your business, whether they tend to think disruptively, and if they are competitive or collaborative. You’d want to find how proactive they are. Are they inventing new products for clients?  Creating communities? Developing apps? Are they as committed to all the non-advertising platforms as to the 30-second spot?  After all, you may be hiring an advertising agency, but advertising may be something different in the years to come.

Unlike a conventional pitch process, the workshop approach mirrors how marketers and agencies work in real life and paints a much clearer picture of the competing agencies’ strengths and weaknesses. And, of course, it provides for tremendous savings and minimizes disruption to the client’s business.

Source

"Why the RFP is a Waste of Time." Avidan Strategies, 2014.

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