RFP hell

Talk to anyone in “the business” and they’ll tell you they hate responding to RFPs. It’s not that we hate hard work. It’s exactly the opposite. We hate working hard on something that we know we have absolutely no chance of winning, but yet we submit anyway. To be honest, I’m not sure why, but I bet in the back of the minds of everyone doing this is the thought that they might have a chance, however small.

The trouble is, the RFP process is inherently flawed. Corporations and government organizations that issue RFPs do it because it’s easy, and it’s the process they’re used to. You can tell they’re not even trying because just about every RFP we’ve ever received includes snippets of text that are boilerplate for all of their documents. For instance, I just read an RFP for a website redevelopment effort that includes text clearly meant for a tenant in one of their properties. The passage insists that we take the property as-is, where is. Does anyone even read these things before they go out? It’s disrespectful to the firms submitting proposals. We’re expected to have absolutely perfect documents that meet all 900 crazy specifications in the RFP, printed in triplicate, but they can’t even remove requests not related to the engagement?

Half the time RFPs are written with a single proponent in mind. You can notice these because the skill request is so precise, that you can tell it’s being based off the qualifications of someone they’re already chosen, but legally have to solicit for more bids. I saw one recently that was for a social media listening project that wanted to know how many national or international conference keynotes the lead consultant had given. This was worth about 10-15% of the total merit points! Really? Why are the two even related? Because the process of issuing RFPs is so tainted that it’s just being done because organizations have to.

Then, there are the RFPs that request a key piece of work to be done as part of the response. This is wrong on so many levels. It is generally accepted amongst the design community that providing design work or concept development before the awarding of the contract constitutes what is known as spec work. This practice is considered unethical for a number of reasons. The first of which is because it is not possible for anyone to develop a concept for you without having invested considerable time in research of the requirements of the project. Since no firm would have had an opportunity to meet with you to discuss the requirements of the project, no one is qualified to offer a concept that fully takes into account your business objectives and goals. The Graphic Designers of Canada’s have this to say to business on spec creative.

Clients need to recognize the value of the agency’s portfolio and see it for what it is: examples of successful executions of projects in the past. You don’t need to see the exact solution in order to choose your design partner. The journey to achieve this solution is as important as the final product. Any agency that tells you the solution before going through a strategy and planning process is feeding you a line.

As an industry we need to encourage our clients to stop this practice. It’s demeaning, an exceeding amount of effort for limited return. I encourage clients do some research, then ask the owners of sites they like who did the work for them. Find a few of these and invite one or two companies to bid on the project. Bring them in to discuss it. If you’re going to ask for some spec creative, offer a small honorarium to compensate the businesses for their effort. I once bid on a job with the NSCC, and they offered a small amount of cash to the 4 or 5 bidders. This is a pretty enlightened thing to do.

Not that this needs to happen every time, but it does show a certain amount of respect for the agencies submitting a proposal.

Seriously though, a conversation and interview process would likely create much better work in the end as the relationship between agency and client would be far stronger.

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