When organizations look to outside firms for help with communication needs such as design, digital development, or marketing, they often prepare and post requests for proposals (RFPs)—documents that define results and outcomes required at the completion of a project—to identify and select vendors. In theory, this is a common-sense way to solicit qualified bids by asking firms to provide proposals. But in reality, RFPs can lead to a frustrating mess of bad work and missed opportunities. To foster truly productive partnerships, organizations should avoid RFPs whenever possible and take a different approach. And while this piece draws mostly from experience with social sector organizations soliciting help with communications, many of these points apply to any organization seeking outside assistance.
Three major problems with RFPs are:
1. They preempt strategy. The most successful projects involve cooperative engagement between expert firms and their clients. Clients possess a unique knowledge of their audiences, goals, and industry; firms possess specific skills related to the services in which they specialize.
What this means is that neither firms nor their clients know the best solution to a given project until both dive into the details and collaborate. RFPs put clients in a position where they must articulate what they want in advance, preempting much of the exploratory work that should begin any project. This puts the cart before the horse and stifles creativity.
2. They make unrealistic demands. A certain level of expertise in very specific areas is required to accurately scope out a job. However, RFPs place an unrealistic expectation of expertise on those who write them. We rarely see an RFP that doesn't misunderstand at least one project need.
A classic example of this is the inclusion of search engine optimization (SEO) in RFP website requirements. Improving a site’s search results takes time—often six months or more for even uncompetitive keywords; listing it as a line item in a website proposal usually indicates a lack of understanding about what is involved in the process. RFPs expect clients to know more than they reasonably should.
There is usually a short window of time when clients and potential firms can submit questions, but this odd form of communication rarely breeds clear understanding. Scoping out a project, especially the kinds of large projects that typically utilize RFPs, takes a fair amount of back and forth; it takes exploration, followed by ideation, followed by clarification. Trying to accomplish this process by emailing a single round of questions drastically limits what organizations can explore or understand. When firms bid on a job without real clarity, they tend to protect themselves by padding estimates and offering less-original solutions. Truly innovative and creative solutions rarely survive this environment.
3. They waste everyone’s time. In many cases, organizations soliciting work already have a preferred vendor in mind. If you are not a preferred vendor, than you might as well assume someone else is. This means that many talented firms don't even bother competing on these projects knowing that the immense work of scoping out a project could be in vain. Sometimes, organizations have no one in mind. It is not uncommon for a client to decide to do the project in house after using RFP responses to help them think through challenging pieces of the job. Sometimes clients postpone or even cancel a project after receiving bids, wasting several firms’ time by posting an RFP before they are certain that the project is approved and funded.
An Alternative Approach
Posting an RFP and expecting the perfect partner to send you an ideal proposal is like believing that placing an advertisement will magically send ideal customers to your door. Advertisements work when they are carefully constructed and expertly targeted. Partnerships work when they start with honest and thoughtful conversations and seek strategic fit.
Some organizations are legally mandated to issue RFPs. They typically rely on this form of solicitation to promote fairness in the bidding process but often only succeed in attracting firms that specialize in preparing RFPs. If such a process is mandated, there are a few steps that can mitigate some of the most significant downsides. Organizations issuing RFPs should give firms ample time to respond, provide plenty of guidance through accessible communications channels, create transparency in the bidding process (for example, disclose how many firms are bidding and if there are preferred vendors), and share feedback with firms that didn’t win the bid.
For organizations that don’t require RFPs, I propose an alternative. Look for firms and individuals who do great work and have a conversation with them. If you don't know where to start looking, talk to organizations like your own that have successfully completed similar projects. Choose depth over breadth, getting to know your potential partners and allowing them to truly understand your needs. If you like a firm’s body of work, it’s likely that they can create something great for you as well.
If you are having trouble finding the right partners, another option is to issue a general capabilities RFP. This opens the door to a relationship without either side having to feign certainty about a specific project.
Organizations should question the belief that more options lead to better choices. Many of the least original firms present an array of recycled options, while many of the most creative ones pour all of their energy into a single piece of work.
We should see all projects as partnerships. Starting a partnership with respect and admiration for a firm's work, and really getting to know the team, makes it far more likely that you will achieve something innovative, unique, and accurately priced than if you relied on an RFP.