I believe the RFI and RFP model of agency partner selection is the single greatest challenge to design firms, if not our entire industry. It is a universal concern, and I would like nothing more than to see it changed, or simply stopped.
After 20 years of success, helping to generate billions of dollars in client revenue, all too often we encounter some form of this request. Though these requests come from prospective clients as might be understood, we also receive them from current clients, and even those with whom we enjoy a long legacy.
RFI = Standard Practice
Regrettably, the process has become standard practice. As companies spent the past few decades implementing processes and optimizing procedures in their drive to efficiency, so goes the process of choosing agency partners from a wide range of options. Like the customers they serve, companies too are challenged to find the best solution, at the lowest reasonable cost, and on the best terms. The current, flawed approach does aid the selection process, particularly given the thousands or tens of thousands of service providers to choose from in a sea of relative sameness.
These RFI and RFP approaches as used by most clients are often fundamentally flawed. Most clients court a range of agencies for any given project via the RFP. The process requires a substantial investment of agency time and resources. Agencies are often asked to provide examples of similar projects or case studies, to present initial creative thoughts, or in the worst-case scenario, to provide some form of (what is rarely referred to as) spec work.
Looking Back Rather Than Forward
Over the last decade, the pace of the RFI process has accelerated greatly. Compounding the problem is a rapid commoditization of design and advertising agency businesses. As a result, client organizations rely on their awareness of the firm and its past work as key selection criteria. Yet in our rapidly changing world, this is the absolute wrong approach. It encourages a retrospective rather than forward-looking evaluation, which tends to undermine the creative process.
At present, awards play a role in awareness and qualification. But as meritorious platforms, largely curated by peers, awards are not the proper metric for evaluation either. The solution lies in differentiating our firms, demonstrating our special expertise, and proving our value. Demonstrating the value of and the ROI of our work, and appropriate compensation, should be the top priority of agencies as we strive to play more meaningful roles. Only then will designers rise above the RFI & RFP. But if we all don’t shun the request, nothing will change.
It is often not viable to engage in an RFI as specialists versus generalist agencies. But generalists gladly accept any work, and who can blame them? In our case, we have defined our position and focused our brand and marketing around our best work and a clearly defined expertise. We walk what we talk. We focus exclusively on design for kids and families. We are often told we own this positioning. Yet that may not be enough, especially in an RFI or RFP process. By its very nature this process devalues us. And, until we stop it, we will continue to devalue ourselves, our work, and our firms. We have fought this fight for nearly two decades, and I realize we are in the small minority, but we do not stand alone. We must become the majority.
In his Call To Arms, Blair Enns lists “The Twelve Proclamations of his Win Without Pitching Manifesto.” I had the privilege of hearing Blair’s point of view years ago at an APDF (Association of Professional Design Firms) Exchange event. His Manifesto includes clear steps that we as agencies must take to deal with and dismantle the RFI & RFP.
Blair’s Thirteenth Proclamation says it best:
“To some the idea of overthrowing the governing conventions of this industry will always seem impossible. Not everyone has the heart or stomach for revolution. The rest of us — the fed up, those craving more respect and willing to fight for it, and those who believe that there just has to be a better way to build and run a business — we will change the way creative services are bought and sold the world over, one firm at a time.”
I couldn’t agree more. I am fed up, crave more respect, and am willing to fight for it.
Surely there is a better way.
Bill Goodwin, of Goodwin Design Group (http://goodwindesigngroup.com) is widely recognized as a thought leader, author and speaker in the areas of strategic design, marketing, and the many client industries his group serves.