Offering a considered response

Ted McKenna outlines the hows, whens, and ifs of responding to RFPs

Ted McKenna outlines the hows, whens, and ifs of responding to RFPs

For PR and public affairs firms, RFPs are somewhat of a necessary evil. After all the time taken to research and respond to RFPs, agencies can't usually be sure they'll win. That's why they shouldn't bother in the first place, unless they're sure they have at least a fighting chance, executives say.

"We tend to take a black-and-white approach," says Pete Arnold, CEO of Boston-based Peter Arnold Associates. "If we think we're the right agency and we can win, we'll go after it. If we don't, we don't try, really."

Defining precisely what makes a winning RFP is tricky. It's not only because most every potential client and their RFP differs from previous clients and their RFPs, but also because no matter how hard an agency works on the RFP response, the decision may, in the end, boil down to "chemistry" among the potential client and the bidders.

Jerry Johnson, EVP at Brodeur, describes an RFP his firm responded to for work on a campaign in a particular state. It came down to just his firm and another one. The other firm, which won the contract, brought the client fresh-baked cookies in the shape of the state, Johnson says.

Was that truly the deciding factor? Hard to know for sure, says Johnson, but doing something that grabs the attention of the prospective client probably doesn't hurt. To show that his firm understands the needs of potential customers, Brodeur has taken to doing video interviews with various focus groups, like it did for an RFP for Discovery Communications' new homework service, in which it interviewed kids and parents about what they think of homework.

"I think it closed the deal for us," he says.

For the most part, RFP responders should stick to the rules, whatever they are. If they include not contacting certain people, then don't contact them, says Stephen Boehler, founding partner of PR consultancy Mercer Island Group. Most important, the best RFP response should stand out - not because the presentation is flashy, but because the response is really tailored to the client.

For Parker Trewin, director of marketing communications at software developer Genius, one main goal in the RFP process is determining how hard and effectively the agency would work in the face of adversity.

"In any relationship, it's easy to coast on the good days," Trewin says. "The good days are when the news is hot, you have a strong story line, and reporters [are] calling you up. But how are we going to get down to the hard work of building solid relationships and maintaining those?"

Wooing prospective clients should only go so far, though. For example, don't just tell clients what they want to hear. Kelli Parsons, GM of Hill & Knowlton's DC office, says her firm has won contracts that turned out to be based on flawed strategies. As a result, the firm has learned to be much more bold in providing frank counsel in response to RFPs.

"Sometimes that means we won't win a result," she says. "But if [clients] spend good money and risk their program or company's reputation on us, then I owe it to them to give them my best professional advice."

Another key factor in whether or not to answer an RFP is gauging how genuine the search is. There are still issuers out there who are less than honest about the reasons for issuing RFPs, and what their criteria for selection are, notes Bob Witeck, CEO and cofounder, Witeck-Combs Communications.

"I don't mean that most people do this, but on rare occasions there is a sense of potential clients fishing for things, like ideas ... and then they didn't hire anybody," Witeck says.


Finding out what the customer wants and expects is particularly important with government RFPs, which often come with more extensive requirements than private-sector RFPs. One cynical DC-area agency exec says in some cases the people nominally in charge of government RFP appear unsure of the real criteria for selection, which may ultimately be awarded based on political ties.

This may, like the private-sector RFPs that are mere fishing expeditions, not be typical for government RFPs, but nevertheless contributes to the wariness agencies feel about RFPs overall and the general urge they feel for both issuer and responder of RFPs to be as open and honest as possible.

Technique tips

DO

Check for typos and other basic mistakes in the response

Follow the rules for obtaining additional information

Show that you understand the client, through research or other means

DON'T

Respond unless there's at least a fair chance of winning

Crash the party by responding unsolicited to RFPs you heard about indirectly

Pander by saying only what the client wants to hear

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