Delivering unhappiness

In 2009, an advertising executive publicly slammed Zappos' RFP process. How can PR send a message?

Delivering unhappiness

Mad Men fans will recall Don Draper's full-page ad in The New York Times titled, "Why I'm Quitting Tobacco". The open letter was a cynical parry to the loss of the agency's biggest account, Lucky Strike.

Draper won industry acclaim, but lost prospective clients and trust as companies wondered, 'will he turn on us next'?

In 2009, Mike Wolfsohn, then executive creative director at advertising agency Ignited, posted a blog on his agency's Web site, criticizing what he saw as Zappos' over-subscribed and onerous RFP process - and in particular what he perceived as the company's lack of rigor in reviewing the proposals.

Our story this week on Zappos' RFP withdrawal obviously reminded me of this incident.

The advertising RFP in 2009 had been posted on Adweek and attracted over 100 actual pitches, far more than the company had originally intended to include. Wolfsohn used Google Analytics to track how much time Zappos had spent reviewing his agency's submission, which had been posted on a dedicated blog.

Wolfsohn's original screed is no longer on Ignited's Web site, but a ClickZ story that reported on it said, "the company viewed only 5 of 25 pages on the blog it created for the pitch, with an average page-view time of 14 seconds."According to ClickZ, Wolfson wrote, "If Zappos wasn't prepared to evaluate 80+ responses they shouldn't have opened the review beyond the initial 16 agencies they contacted."

Agencies should have known better than to bite, Wolfsohn suggested. "The red flags were hard to miss.The RFP was posted on (so much for carefully screening the participants) and the brief asked for 'storyboards and mock-ups' to be included in the first-round response (premature to say the least). But the temptation of winning the Zappos account was even harder to resist."

Client doors closed on Don Draper, but Wolfsohn told me this week he experienced no negative repercussions from his own letter. Of course, Wolfsohn had discussions with the agency leadership before he went out while Draper famously struck out on his own."The biggest concern we had was that anyone who might be having a review moving forward might be reticent to include us," Wolfsohn said. "But that didn't happen."

"Honestly, I think of it as one of the most rewarding and positive things I've done," he told me. "It was incredible, the number of emails I received in the two to three days following that, from pretty significant people and people I hadn't met before, saying how happy they were that someone had taken a stance on this."

Wolfsohn is now founder and chief creative officer of High Wide & Handsome, an agency based in Culver City, California. He and his co-founders decided from the beginning that they would abstain from reviews of the kind he excoriated.

"We started an agency because we had a point of view about things just like this. We don't want to be part of that game. It reduces the speed that we can acquire new clients, but it also prevents us from having incredibly demoralizing experiences."

Many agencies, however, simply have to be part of the game. And while there is plenty of grumbling about Zappos underground, I think we will not see a grand gesture along Wolfsohn's lines from our PR friends. It's not surprising that fear, discretion, and the culture of PR itself conspire to make public denouncements unlikely. 

But as in the advertising RFP, the red flags were there, and I hope that somehow the message is getting through to Zappos that this process was not ideal from the start. The level of strategic work demanded up front in the RFP seems out of proportion, even if the review had progressed as expected. The fact that it didn't only makes it more frustrating.

From the RFP:

"A primary to establish brand awareness for as more than a shoe retailer, but rather a one-stop shop online retailer that offers a range of products from footwear to handbags, accessories to beauty and beyond. Proposals should meet the below objectives in approach."

"Describe how you would address the strategic communications needs and reach the program's audiences based on the objectives provided.

"Provide us with a 90-day plan on how you would manage our account; prioritize initiatives and the results you expect to achieve."

This is not simply casting for ideas to learn how the agency thinks, but rather a demand for a fully fledged plan before anyone was even invited to be in the same room with the client. It's ok to say it - that's just not right. The fact that it's not uncommon doesn't make it more right.

I don't expect to see one of the agency leaders take to their blogs to object, but I hope these concerns are being expressed directly to Zappos, and others who, mindfully or not, abuse a process that exerts a huge toll on agency talent. Those of us in business media have a role to play, but principals must be ready to confront prospects   about the problems that this kind of RFP, and behavior, engenders.

Zappos is a great brand and company, and will command agency attention whenever it returns to find new expertise. Let's all help it do a better job next time.

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