Oh, requests for proposals – what would we in the agency world do without you? For one, we’d probably sleep a lot better. RFPs are stressful for agencies, who put untold hours into filling them out only to get a “Dear John” letter in the mail.
Just before the global pandemic struck, we received our latest – and final – such letter from a county agency that is literally one block away from our offices. They were looking to promote county services and wanted a firm that understood their local challenges. They chose an agency in another state, over 400 miles away. An agency that will never visit our county. And knows nothing about it. We spent roughly 200 hours on a response to their 50-page, convoluted RFP. And we got a “thanks but no thanks” rather than even a phone call.
What Goes Into RFP Replies?
First, you will need to assign someone to deciphering the RFP because there is always “trip-up language” built in (things that disqualify you immediately – like putting your answer to question 234, subpart C, into subpart D by mistake). Then you will need to research the company, the marketplace, their goals, etc. Then you’ll need to devise a strategy, budget, timeline and breakdown of potential creative. Sometimes, the RFPs ask for “spec” creative – which they can keep for no cost, even if they never use your firm. So, in other words, filling out an RFP will eventually involve an account rep, accountant, writer, designer, programmer, creative director, social media manager, media director – and possibly more. At a small firm – that usually means all hands on deck.
Procurement Obligations and “Unfair Advantages”
While most government entities have to send out RFP’s, publicly held companies also issue RFPs to satisfy their board of directors or company guidelines. While the requirement to issue an RFP is commonly touted as a way to encourage fair competition between agencies and compare their price and services, it is very commonly just a fulfillment of what is known as a procurement obligation to provide the illusion of impartiality.
RFPs are typically sent out to at least three agencies to fulfill their obligations with a winner already in mind. Most times, the winning agency has a connection or personal relationship with someone on the decision committee.
The other agencies are what we refer to as the “usual suspects.” Round up a bunch of patsy agencies and throw them in with the preferred choice, then have a supposedly even competition to see which comes out on top. If it were a level playing field, that would be fine. But after almost 20 years in business, this is simply not the case. We know because we’ve also been on the winning end a few times – and it’s only been because we were the preferred vendor. That doesn’t make the process any fairer because we know other agencies spun their wheels and wasted a lot of energy to go nowhere.
Forfeiture of Intellectual Property
According to Barbara Berschler, an expert in business law, intellectual property is defined as “a form of property that grows out of the creations of the human mind” and is protected by copyright. However, she is careful to also note that copyright restrictions only apply to the specific expression of an idea and not the underlying idea itself.
So how does this translate to the RFP process? It’s actually pretty simple.
In short, the client requesting a proposal could love your agency’s ideas, yet hire another agency at a lower cost to meet their budget to execute the idea. In this case, unless the underlying idea is patented or classified as a trade secret, that once-potential client could effectively steal your creative copyright with total legal impunity.
Since theft is generally considered to be a disreputable and shameful act, you might be wondering how common this practice actually is. The answer is surprisingly often.
Empathetic Adman recently reported on a 2019 RFP issued by the cereal giant General Mills that imposed stringent timelines, a quarterly pay schedule and a blind scope of work, but then demanded ownership of all intellectual property from the proposals they received.
This practice of essentially disclosure-based theft is not isolated to large firms – it is also business as usual for government entities, mid-sized companies and many nonprofit organizations as well. Large nonprofits, such as the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes education and entrepreneurship, routinely include legal clauses in the terms & conditions sections of their RFP processes, claiming ownership of all intellectual property included in the pitches they receive.
Imagine doing dozens of hours’ worth of free work, only to see it used in the next campaign launched by the client that didn’t hire you. Not only is it professionally frustrating, but it is also personally disrespectful.
Another big issue with RFPs it that many don’t include a defined budget. This means the agency has to guess. Since different forms of media have different price points (for example, the cost of a TV spot versus a small print ad), we have to play a guessing game – which is a thorough waste of time.
Precise estimations lead to higher-quality work, custom options and added-value propositions that could not be offered without some budgetary guidance.
The Power of Honest Collaboration
We take a slightly different approach to working with clients at JFG. We make a point to understand the market, goals and customers of our clients, and then we work collaboratively to come up with amazing projects, which is the type of work we do every day at JFG.
We are experts in marketing and branding, as well as digital, TV, print, radio, outdoor and social media advertising. Our breadth of knowledge as seasoned strategists reaches far beyond typical channels and tactics, and we look forward to crafting an innovative, customized marketing plan that fits your business – and budget.
To find out how we can help you achieve your goals, don’t bother sending us an RFP. Just call us at 716.433.7688 – and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn to learn more.
Jack is a highly motivated, hands-on owner responsible for client services and new business development. A copywriter by trade, Jack has a variety of other talents including focus group coordination and facilitation, strategic marketing planning and development, branding and advertising campaign development and writing for all types of advertising initiatives and PR – including crisis PR. He is also an avid traveler, having gone across the globe working with people from diverse cultures throughout Europe, Asia and North America.