We’re invited to an increasing number of digital marketing pitches. If you want to win, you need to make the pitch about the client, their customers and the opportunities and challenges you’re being asked to solve.
These responses are anything but vanilla boiler-pates. They are considered, involve several people, and are time consuming.
They are so time consuming that you need to win more than you lose. So, at Yard we think long hard about whether the prospective client is a fit, the level of impact we think we can have, and the fit with the people we’ve spoken to.
Was there a cultural fit and did you have chemistry?
We’ve arrived at our current pitch approach and process over many years. Along the way, there have been many hard-earned lessons. Some were even brutal.
I’ve written this to share some of these lessons. I hope you find them useful.
RFPs can be wildly different
An RFP is an opportunity for a brand to find the right partners to work with, so the composition and detail within an RFP are important.
These ‘Requests For Proposals’ are obviously written by the client team and are intended to share the information needed to allow the potential agency partner to provide a response that is detailed and specific enough for responses to be differentiated, and a partner shortlisted or chosen.
You would have thought that most RFPs would be similar, but our experience of the RFP process is that requests are often wildly different from company to company. With many RFPs providing little clarity on what is required, to the point that they can only be described as confusing. You do however get some amazing RFPs as well.
“Unchallenged, poor briefs trigger a raft of negative consequences. They lead to confusion, shallow creative thinking and often mediocre ideas. Which in turn lead to unhappy clients, rounds and rounds of creative work, rebriefs, de-motivation and ultimately less effective work in-market.” IPA Guide: The best way for a client to brief an agency
What makes a great RFP – from the agency's perspective?
Most department heads and professional procurement teams understand it takes many hours to respond to an RFP. At busy times, an RFP might even be very disruptive to day-to-day client operations, and of course, this isn’t chargeable work.
However, agencies are delighted to be invited as this is a clear opportunity to grow agencies, develop staff and do amazing work.
From our perspective a great RFP tends to share information and insights on:
The customer - Who is the customer, what do they buy, how and when do they buy, and what needs to be done to ensure the customer is satisfied at different stages of that buyer's journey?
The landscape - What is the current internal and market situation, including any insights on competitive landscape. SWOT analysis is always useful.
Analytics - Are there analytical insights that are shaping your decision making?
Strategy - What is your proposed strategic direction – which battles do you need to win in order to lead your market?
Goals - What does success look like, and which objectives and key measures is the work going to align with?
Initiative history - Is there any relevant history we can learn from – what has been tried / done so far, what has worked and what has not?
Culture - What values and behaviours does a colleague and partner need to display to be seen as a great fit?
Budget - What is the budget available to achieve the results the business needs?
For context, the last RFP we responded took over 100 hours of work — research & analysis, internal and external meetings, all leading to delivering a creative and detailed response — that’s nearly 3 working weeks.
Which is why at Yard, when receiving an RFP, we go through a qualification process to grade the opportunity. If we don’t think we’re a fit, it’s best we decline to participate.
Getting it spectacularly wrong is expensive
We have learned through many years and mistakes that translating the RFP, digesting and understanding what is required, is key. We can then choose who we hope to work with as partners.
But even then, some slip through the net. Recently we received an RFP that was a good fit for what we would consider ourselves world-class at, so we worked through it and delivered our response as usual.
The day before our initial chemistry meeting, we had requests for other services outside of that initial request. This quickly escalated into the initial core RFP getting ‘out of shape’ with services different to, and above and beyond, the services we had been asked about.
It was clear that the brand was no longer a good fit for us. As an example of the level of scope creep, something that they had wanted to ‘slip in’ was web development. Something very much its own area of work, quite different to search, content, digital PR and analytics.
We declined to go any further, which meant that our initial investment in response was for nothing. But that was still preferable to going further down the road with something that was clearly not the right fit for us.
If I had a few pieces of advice for a brand when requesting proposals, I’d say this:
Take your time and share as much as you can from the list above, as it allows us to craft detailed and specific proposals that will hopefully inspire you to want to work with us.
Value your time and an agency’s time - it's just the right thing to do.
Don’t let the scope creep - it's annoying for everyone.
The relationship is more valuable than you think, so get everyone to meet ASAP and see if you could imagine working together — real chemistry.