Technology no replacement for chemistry in slow-to-evolve RFP process

Social media and other comms tech sometimes enhance the RFP process, but they have not supplanted face-to-face meetings to determine chemistry between agency and prospective client, say industry leaders.

Social media and other communications technologies sometimes enhance the RFP process, but they have not supplanted face-to-face meetings as the crucial step to determine chemistry between an agency and a prospective client, say industry leaders.

The issue was highlighted earlier this month when Starwood Hotels & Resorts brand Aloft Hotels put a new spin on the RFP process by inviting agencies to pitch for its business via Twitter, calling it the “RFTweet.”

While numerous agencies immediately tweeted their interest at Aloft, some industry leaders tell PRWeek the microblogging service is not the best vehicle to pick an agency partner. Leah Jones, VP of social and emerging media at Olson PR, notes that clients want social to be included in the proposal process. However, squeezing something as important as an RFP into a social media format “loses a lot of the value that agencies can receive from either an in-person meeting or a longer proposal.”

“At the end of the day, it's the in-room chemistry and real interactions that are going to help you determine if you are going to be able to work together,” says Jones. “I don't think that even being able to woo a client on social media tells you I can do social media for you.”

Bret Werner, managing partner at Catalyst, agrees that RFPs should remain first and foremost an interpersonal process.

“Technology is changing the communications sector, but we need to be careful that technology isn't making a relationship business too impersonal, especially when it comes to an RFP process,” he explains. “If technology makes it a cattle call, it's not an effective means to finding the right partner. It should help the process, not impede it.”

That is not to say social media is without value in the agency-selection process. To the contrary, some agency executives are skeptical about social at the forefront of an RFP, but say it better serves as a research tool to feel out potential clients and build relationships.

“Social media is the world's biggest focus group,” says David Richeson, MD and chief digital officer at Kaplow, noting that social platforms help to prepare a team for a first meeting with a prospective client. “It gives us a lot of room, and we are able to do research a lot quicker. That gives us a lot more data and insight to work with in the RFP and creative process.”

Other agency leaders who spoke with PRWeek say the “RFTweet” process runs the risk of making the agency-selection process too technocratic, often noting that personal chemistry can make the difference between winning a coveted account and coming in second.

“[The RFTweet] strikes me as somewhat impersonal in a business that is really so much at the core about chemistry,” explains Susan Pagano, SVP and senior partner of new business at Fleishman-Hillard's Eastern division. “We often find when it comes down to a tiebreaker situation it is the chemistry you create and can develop with a client in a personal, in-person presentation.”

While technology has changed many facets of the PR business, from the emergence of social media to integrated work with other firms, agency leaders point out that the RFP process has not evolved significantly in recent years. Yet there are other emerging trends and elements in the pitch process that agencies note, such as more outside consultants, prospect and agency brainstorming sessions, and an emphasis on measurement.

“If there's anything I see in the RFP process, it is how little has changed,” says David Herrick, COO at MWW. “I feel the traditional RFP process judges an agency's ability to effectively help their clients communicate in the same way a multiple-choice test would determine how a business school student might actually function as a business leader.”

“My point is most RFPs do not do a good job of figuring out how agencies and clients can become one and work together to do great things,” he adds.

Werner agrees the typical agency-search process is a broken model because “it doesn't put emphasis on some key elements such as interpersonal skills, culture of the agency, and the ability to think and respond in real-time scenarios.”

Richeson also notes a pattern of RFPs that have not resulted in an agency selection. For example, online retailer Zappos canceled an RFP it began in May. Other processes include a large number of agencies, such as restaurant chain Applebee's reaching out to nine shops in its recent RFP.

“It seems like a buyer's market, and [we're] seeing people reach out to a lot of agencies,” says Richeson.

Werner adds that while agencies are often not aware of how many other firms are involved in a pitch, a mass outreach should give a shop a moment to think about the RFP and prospective client.

“When the brand has not created a filter or done due diligence, it could provide insight into what type of client relationship it could be,” he explains.

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