All agencies come across pieces of business they are unsure about pursuing. In such cases, Paul Cordasco discovers that the RFP itself - from how it's written to the questions it raises - can often tell the firm if it should accept or avoid an invitation to pitch.To respond or not to respond? That is the question. At least it is when it comes to PR firms and RFPs. While turning down any solicitation to pitch for new business often seems unthinkable early in the life of an agency, sometimes one of the smartest decisions a firm can make involves deciding to avoid the latest agency bake-off. Many agency folks say that years of experience have taught them that first contact with a potential client can tell them a lot. Whether this contact comes via what is called an RFI (request for information) or an RFP (a request for proposals), how clients treat their first interaction with agencies is not to be taken lightly. Mark Nardone, a VP at Andover, MA-based Pan Communications, says that over the course of a year his firm receives a multitude of inquiries from potential clients. He says that he bases much of his decision on whether to pursue a client by these contacts. "We've received RFPs that are fairly straightforward," says Nardone. "These tend to focus on things like number of employees, critical pulse points, as well as experience in the space. Then there are others where, on top of all that, there are requests for recommendations, questions about how we'd approach certain situations, and other very non-qualified questions to be asking an agency so early in the game. Those are the ones to which we usually don't respond." Nardone says that agencies need to know more about the nature of the proposed assignment or the client itself before they can feel comfortable investing the firm's resources by responding. "How do you ask an agency to go on the record with some hard recommendations when we don't even know some critical things?" Nardone asks. "What are their key initiatives from a product positioning standpoint? What are some of their key initiatives from an executive positioning standpoint? I mean these are major things that an organization needs to have in mind at all times. They're just asking for information that shouldn't be asked in the initial phase of the request," says Nardone. Bill Phelps, an account supervisor at Richmond, VA-based Siddall, Matus & Coughter says about 70% of his new-business opportunities are based on corporate or government RFPs. "You can tell a lot about a client through an RFP," notes Phelps. "First, you can probably determine their level of sophistication, at least when it comes to marketing. For instance, it's not uncommon for us to receive an RFP by a company or an organization that's never done any serious marketing before. Second, you can tell how the organization is run by the way the document is produced and how well it's written. And if you read between the lines, you can often figure out what the decision-making structure might be." Phelps says RFPs can also betray some uneasy truths about the agency-selection process. "You can quite often tell if it is written to favor a certain type of agency," he says. "Maybe it's actually written to favor one particular agency. Sometimes you can tell that just by reading it. For instance, the agency has to be located in a certain city and has to offer these services." Another unfortunate part of the RFP process is the significant investment of time and resources spent responding to an RFP can mean for an agency. Sometimes, even if a firm feels like it's well-suited to pursue an assignment, the RFP requires so much effort on the part of staff that the risk-reward equation becomes too heavily tilted towards the "risk" side. "We once had an RFP for transportation marketing services," explains Phelps. "And they wanted so many things, among them a fully developed and designed brochure that could be taken to a printer and printed immediately upon the contract being awarded. This organization essentially wanted us to do the work up-front, without any assurance that we would get paid for it. That's an example of a situation where we knew it was time to walk away."
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