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Agency Insider: The RFP is Broken

May 22, 2023

It’s no secret that the RFP process is cumbersome, but it’s also ineffective. We estimate that roughly 35% of awarded agency RFPs are unsuccessful.  

So why are brands still using RFPs to hire agencies?

RFP Origins

The RFP began as a transparent method for the government to contact out projects. It was great for its purpose – to hedge corruption in government contracting. However, it was never purpose-designed for anything creative, which brings us to the crux of the problem: RFPs are rigid.

What’s Wrong with the RFP?

A lot.

1.      One-Size-Fits-All: RFPs treat all agencies the same, discounting the unique styles, culture, and creativity that different agencies can offer. It undermines the fact that advertising is inherently an innovative and creative industry.

2.      Quantitative Over Qualitative: RFPs lean heavily towards measurable aspects such as cost, capacity, and timelines, sometimes at the expense of assessing the quality of creative ideas. This focus can misrepresent the full value an agency could bring to the table. They can’t measure the intangibles that make great relationships so great.

3.      Lack of Relationship Building: RFPs often leave little room for conversations and negotiations that could lead to better mutual understanding and stronger relationships between brands and agencies. Again, they don’t leave room for identifying that “je ne sais quois” – the x factor – that makes all the difference between a mediocre (or even unsuccessful) partnership and a magical one.

4.      Time & Resources: The RFP process is laborious, time-consuming, and ends up diverting resources away from actual productive work.


So Why Are We Using RFPs?

RFPs became a popular business tool in the 70s and 80s and pretty much just stuck. They’re systematic, repeatable, and aren’t questioned by upper management. They lend a sense of credibility and accountability to the brand manager who is going to be held accountable for their choice.

While all that is true, does it justify the drawbacks? We think not.


The Secret: A Better Way to Select an Agency

If you want to ensure that you’re choosing an agency that fits your ethos and culture, these are a few great alternatives to the RFP:


1.      Cultural Fit Assessment: Emphasize understanding the values, work style, and team chemistry between your company and the potential agency. This assessment can be done through a series of workshops, meetings, or even social events.

2.      Agile Agency Selection: Following the philosophy of Agile project management, the process focuses on open communication, flexibility, and swift decision-making. Prospective agencies are involved in an ongoing dialogue and can adjust their pitches based on the evolving requirements of the client.

3.      Sprint Project: Organizing a spring project where shortlisted agencies are given a real-world problem and a fixed time to develop a solution encourages innovation, speed, and practical problem-solving. The end solutions give a realistic view of what working with the agency may actually look like.

4.      Strategy-First Approach: Instead of requesting a full-fledged campaign, businesses can ask agencies to outline their strategic approach to a particular challenge. This allows a focus on ideas, innovative thinking, and a clear understanding of the agency's expertise.


If you’re still stuck in the RFP rut or just feel that you’re not finding the right fit, give these a try.  Remember, you don’t have to choose just one of the above. You can use a combination or hybrid of any of them; whatever best fits your brand needs.

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