The RFP is dead, long live the RFP!

My suggestion

If you’re planning to write and send a Request-for-Proposal (RFP) to an agency for a digital project, start by asking yourself what value you’re hoping to achieve with all the time you will be investing in: writing, refining, getting peer feedback, sending out, briefing recipients, answering questions and reviewing your responses?

Over the last 20 years I’ve responded to a lot of RFP’s and my honest opinion is that in most cases RFP’s do not really achieve what the author is looking for, which ultimately is deep confidence that the agency they select will be a great partner to work with and will in turn deliver great outcomes on time and on budget. I believe there are much better ways to spend your time to get that confidence rather than pouring weeks (or months) of unfulfilling time into an RFP.

Here's why...

What the RFP process usually creates is a long, highly detailed document, crammed full of interrogating questions designed to find weakness rather than strength. And if we’re honest, most RFP’s are probably a mashup of online articles and previous RFP’s from other parts of the business, that by the time it is finished will have a somewhat cloudy focus on the actual problem to be solved. It is also not uncommon for a business to invest so much time in writing, sharing and iterating an RFP that they end up left with a ridiculously short window for responses; I’ve lost track of how many times I have received a 30+ page RFP in my inbox with a 2 week response deadline, which is a shame because we all want the best minds in our teams to be involved in shaping a proposal but not at the detriment of existing client work. And let’s be honest, 2 weeks is really not long enough to do justice to a proposal of any significant value. It has always seemed bizarre to me the way some businesses think that if they spend a month or more prepping an RFP then it’s perfectly reasonable for an agency to respond insightfully and diligently within a couple of weeks.

Then, once the RFP is out in the wild, what you’ll usually get back from the agencies is a diverse range of answers and opinions formed in a vacuum, laced with assumptions and exclusions designed to protect the interests of the agency, who are doing their best to answer a really complicated brief in a short time frame with very little exposure to the business and nothing but a tome of sterile questions and a handful of high level requirements to go on.

If you step back and look at this traditional RFP process objectively, it is not really designed to build trust and long term partnerships, but rather to protect both parties from getting something wrong in the short term whilst accidentally creating a culture of tension and suspicion between both parties. This is because when we create an RFP we become obsessed with making sure we don’t forget to ask something, so we ask everything and end up losing focus on what’s important: getting to know a partner in context so that you can develop trust and confidence in their ability to achieve the outcomes you need within your timeframe and budget.

This is why we try to do things a bit differently and have adapted our approach to designing proposals; rather than jumping straight onto the RFP when it hits our inbox (and sweating over the predictably short timeframe that we have to reply), we prefer a more engaged approach that helps our prospective new client by encouraging them to ditch the RFP in favour of a new type of RFP – the Research For a Partner.

Finding the right partner for you

We (at Profound) obsess about creating better experiences and this includes the experience of being one of our clients. But this relationship and trust should not wait to be developed until the first statement of work is signed. My view is that the presales stage is the perfect time for a client to sheep dip themselves into our world and really see first-hand what it’s like working in partnership with our team. I would much rather invest my team’s presales time in working closely with a prospective client to solve problems and define project strategies and solutions together (as one team) instead of asking my team to pour endless hours (in isolation) into a soulless RFP response. Think of it like an extended test drive of a new car, the high value collaborative time you spend with an agency at the presales stage will demonstrate much more effectively the suitability of the agency for your long-term goals than their RFP response ever could.

So basically, instead of investing weeks or months writing a fully-fledged RFP document in isolation, spend this valuable time more intimately with a few shortlisted agencies. And just to be clear, I am not advocating engaging new agencies without context or a business goal defined, you absolutely need that, but let the agencies inform your thinking on how to achieve your outcomes without constraining them to any of the preconceptions that often end up getting defined through an arm’s length RFP process.

Through this collaborative time you will not only start to get a good instinct for which agency team you like and are most comfortable with, but also who you will be able to trust and work with over a longer period. You will also benefit from a hive of experienced minds working together to define solutions and generating ideas that you probably won’t have thought of or uncovered through the traditional RFP process. This is because creative people love to work together and thrive on the buzz they get from solving a problem with nothing but a whiteboard, a group of great minds and an endless jug of coffee to fuel them. You may even end up with a number of technical proof-of-concepts that will help you de-risk your project. Best of all, searching for a new strategic digital partner in this way will be more fun, more fulfilling, and you will probably end up with a much better solution for your project.

Some things to look for in your new partner

Selecting a partner in this way is probably new for some people, and it is important to not make the process too superficial, so here are a few key things to evaluate as you spend time with each prospective new partner:

1: How do the agencies bring end users or customers into the process?

Waiting until launch to get customer feedback adds risk and encourages the businesses to design solutions for the customer with an inside-out mentality.

2: Are the agencies design led or technology led?

Technology should unshackle the design process, not constrain it. This leads onto my next point:

3: How cross functional are the agencies? Do their various digital disciplines integrate well together or are the agency teams kept in siloes?

Modern digital teams should not be siloed, so you should be able to spend time with a mix of specialists all together.

4: How broad are the agencies functional capabilities?

Can they deliver everything you may need (design, website, ecommerce, CMS, search, PIM, DAM, OMS, WMS etc) or will you need to have a mix of partners, which will require more overall governance. Also consider the next point:

5: Are the agencies open minded about technology selection? Can they demonstrate a broad church of technology choices in previous projects?

Some agencies may have built a team with a very specific set of technical skills, and as a result can be naturally biased towards these skills when it comes to selecting technology, which often results in a narrow view of technology choices for the solution you need.

6: What value have the agencies brought to their other clients?

It is important to look beyond time and budget as the key value factors, as projects can be delivered on time and on budget but not necessarily be considered overly successful / valuable or even enjoyable.

7: Do the agencies invest in their clients for the long term, or are they just set up to jump from one big project to the next?

This will help you think about life after launch (which is when the hard work really starts!). Can the agency help with continuous improvement and support, or will you need to find another partner for that?

8: Which agencies have the resources to scale up and down at relatively short notice?

This will be really important when your business priorities change or if you are working agile.

9: How will the agencies help you to de-risk the project?

Most agencies will have wise words from previous similar projects to share with you, but what can they tangibly demonstrate they have done to de-risk previous projects?

It is easy to paint the rosiest of pictures during the presales stage, but you should take comfort in the agencies who are open about pitfalls and their previous scars as well as those who share their secret sauce early in the relationship.

10: Which agency team could you imagine being stranded on a desert island with?

Most major digital projects will consume a lot of your teams’ time, taking them away from their day job, so it is important to feel like the agency you select will be someone you and your teams will enjoy spending all their time with. Also look for evidence that your teams will be able to learn and grow through the experience by being fully integrated into the agency team – this is really important for team morale and engagement, particularly when working on long projects with new concepts.

Long live the RFP

Well, that ended up with a few more words than I imagined when I started putting some of my thoughts down on screen. Hopefully it’s been a helpful read, and hopefully we are not unique in our approach?

There are some great digital agencies out here doing great work, but their best qualities are unlikely to shine through if you just engage with them through a traditional RFP. Why not try spending more meaningful “Partner Research” time with a few shortlisted agencies the next time you have a strategic project to deliver…

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