Looking to lease creative energy? Don't rely on this outdated evaluation method.

Rethinking the RFP
A request for proposal (RFP for short) is the method by which many businesses choose to attract multiple vendors to a specific project. It’s the preferred way for many companies to chum for creative sharks. For organizations like municipalities, it’s the only way.

Having played the RFP game over the years, I’ve gained valuable insight into how creativity is valued in the marketplace; insight that has informed our position at Tangent Civic. As a matter of policy, unless we can talk to a company’s decision-maker first, we will not respond to an RFP — regardless of its purported cachet, creative challenge or financial reward. And we’re not alone in this stance; many high-octane marketing firms know the RFP route is a mug’s game.

Below is my list of reasons why RFPs are flawed. It’s sage advice for other creative professionals, and should provide some food for thought for those who seek to hire them.


We need to get to know one another.

Getting to the heart of a client’s needs requires two-way dialogue, not filling in the blanks on a template. The main flaw with the RFP process is that it forces someone skilled in the art and science of communication design to generalize, make assumptions, and craft a one-size-fits-all proposal.

In a proper discovery session, we seek to understand a client’s objectives and challenges so we can formulate a sensible strategy. What problems are they trying to solve by hiring an agency? What are their goals for a given project? Who’s their audience? We engage them in a real conversation. We ask and we listen. We learn about their pain before we tell them how we’re going to ease it.

An RFP, by comparison, disallows this vital data mining.

Creative dialogue is vital.

The most valuable asset any agency has to offer a prospective client is proprietary thought. Right out of the gate, a rigid RFP hinders the client’s ability to leverage this asset. The firm should be hired not merely to execute a set of hard deliverables, but to consult on their strategic underpinnings.

We’ve gained valuable experience over many years in the business. Clients who help us fully understand their objectives – and who invite us to the table early on – benefit greatly from this experience. Often, we come to the table with perspectives and strategies our clients haven’t yet considered.

Personalities matter.

Any type of business deal is a relationship. As with any relationship, discordant personalities will cause conflict. One of the first things you’re likely to learn from a conversation is whether or not you’re picking up what the other person is laying down. What might be an excellent fit for one client might be terrible for another. An RFP response is unlikely to reveal such nuance. But an initial discovery call (ours are free by the way) might.

Our body of work speaks for itself.

All those in the market for creative talent are well-advised to do some simple due diligence. Look at websites of design or marketing firms you like. Read their content. Call up their clients. Are they happy with the work? Have they realized value from their investment? This simple groundwork will allow you to narrow your consideration set down to a few great contenders. Slogging through that pile of proposals on your desk will not.

The talented people are too busy to respond.

The cardinal reason we steer clear of the whole belabored RFP process is because our team is already busy doing great work for clients who get it. We’re engaged with businesses who invest in our time-honed talents because they understand the business value of our specialized expertise. Our legacy clients also have pre-proven expectations.

Just because we don’t believe in the RFP process (at least as it applies to creative output) doesn’t mean we’re not open to making new business relationships. But it does mean that we’re skilled and seasoned enough to not have to mosh dive for them.

Sean Mellis is a professional communicator with more than two decades of dedicated expertise helping local governments and non profit organizations prosper. His firm Tangent Civic has been engaged by public-sector administrators whose business goals are often thwarted by fragmented communications programs and hit-and-miss vendors. He helps these clients by becoming an adjunct to their existing communications resources – providing the strategic thought and creative output that each engagement requires.


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