President, MikeWorldWide. Passionate about boosting brand voices globally for over two decades.
When I’m working with my team to develop a creative, knock-it-out-of-the-park idea, what’s the first thing we do? Challenge conventional wisdom. In our business, we do this every day.
But one aspect of the agency business remains stubbornly static: the request for proposal process, which is currently more akin to a hazing ritual than a productive courtship. The way it’s done now generates, perhaps unintentionally, friction between the agency and client—needlessly adding a barrier both parties have to overcome to unlock their potential and do great work together.
The Current RFP Process: A Recipe For Unhealthy Client Relationships
Think about the start of any meaningful relationship, one that you hope is long-lasting and fruitful.
Imagine that relationship starting with one party groveling and jumping through hoops to complete one-sided demands, but doing so without clear directions on what they’re expected to accomplish, why or how they should do so.
That’s a recipe for an unhealthy relationship. And in the agency world, it’s exactly the way the RFP process is designed. This unhealthy dynamic creates an “us versus them” mentality and tense push-pulls within client relationships. Take the recent Keurig Dr Pepper RFP that made headlines and caused industry uproar for its unusually long payment terms. Responding agencies putting their financial health at risk to add a desirable brand to its roster is the opposite of a relationship built on mutual respect.
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So, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: What are we trying to accomplish with an RFP? For me, the answer is simple. I want to use RFPs to build trusted relationships with clients and to show them we’re truly invested in their success.
Moving Toward RFPs Built Around Connection, Collaboration And Creativity
According to the Harvard Business Review, high performance and psychological safety are linked, with research showing that “psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.”
Right now, the RFP process agencies undergo is not one that’s conducive to psychological safety, hindering opportunities to optimize their potential.
Can we collectively set new parameters that would move us toward an RFP process that’s centered on connection, collaboration and creativity? Can we shed the antiquated and unsustainable dog-and-pony show that trades fortitude for flattery and relationships for rivalry?
Practice A ‘Reason For Partnership’ Mindset
Let’s start by reimagining each RFP to be a “reason for partnership” because this process should be a two-way tool to become aligned on the project. What is the budget? What are the objectives? What are the financial and marketing challenges the company is facing internally and externally? Has there been agency turnover? How many agencies are invited to the process? These questions need answers. This is absolutely not the moment to be coy and elusive with details. If brands don’t share quality information on their internal and external challenges and opportunities, the process is flawed from the start.
The more information both parties have, the quicker they can decide if they’d be a good fit for each other. For instance, an agency might learn that a client has sent the same pitch to several other agencies. Frankly, I’m an advocate for an agency withdrawing from any pitch that has been extended to an outlandish number of firms. That’s usually a sign of a client that hasn’t done their due diligence. And of course, no budget equals no engagement. This is a business, and everyone deserves financial information to make prudent decisions.
Get Decision Makers At Meetings
An agency wouldn’t send an account executive to drive a new business meeting; similarly, clients should ensure a key decision maker is involved early in the process. This isn’t about ego; it’s about the process being anchored in the vision of senior leadership—making the project less prone to rotating objectives with each round.
Facilitate A Way For Both Parties To Actually Get To Know Each Other
The in-person chemistry dinner has been largely lost in a post-pandemic world, and it can take more effort to carve out the space for stakeholders to understand each other digitally. But there needs to be a way for them to connect. This isn’t just to see if they like each other. It’s to figure out how their pieces fit together, if they’re complementary, if they enhance each other. And this isn’t just limited to the RFP process.
Stop Giving Creative Away For Free
Now, let’s get to what I consider the most controversial element of the RFP: agencies giving away creative ideas for free.
The industry has wrestled with this for decades, and ultimately nothing has substantially shifted. But the world is, thankfully, changing, and it’s no longer acceptable for any business entity to expect unpaid labor—and even worse for an employer to push this onto their teams. Free work, in exchange for the promise of paid work, is an idea from another era and has no place in the modern workplace. When clients, even during the pitch process, pay for strategy and ideas, they are establishing a value standard that will pay dividends as the relationship evolves.
Maintaining Client Relationships After The RFP
Once engaged, agencies and brands should keep relationships thriving by dedicating time to each other that’s not necessarily on the agenda. In the last few years, the industry has talked a lot about the magic of synchronicity—the unscheduled meetings and the casual coffee chatter that yields groundbreaking ideas. Let’s make sure those moments happen in every agency-client relationship. Let’s ditch the agenda occasionally and just talk. Those underrated conversations can lead to bursts of creativity and action.
This column isn’t an aspirational agency wishlist. It’s more pragmatic than that. I’ve built three agencies in my career—and currently, 21 of our clients have been with our agency, MikeWorldWide, for more than a decade. Here’s what I’ve learned: The rich ideas and true mutual investment that comes from a long-standing, fruitful agency-client relationship are, frankly, invaluable. And it’s something we all should strive for.
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Author: Bret Werner, Forbes Councils Member