Why more PR agencies are swiping left on the RFP process

And what clients are doing to make the getting-to-know-you process less uncomfortable.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

If the client-agency relationship is like a marriage, then RFPs might be the worst dating app ever. That’s why PR firms are saying they’re swiping left on more RFPs without even considering a first date.

A recent example is an RFP issued by AT&T this year that Kim Hunter, president and CEO of Lagrant Communications, called a complete sham and chose not to bid for, even though he had previously worked with the telecoms provider. While Hunter’s firm is smaller, larger firms are also not feeling the love for the RFP process.

"It’s a bit superficial and a fast process designed to make a very important long-term, strategic choice," says Carreen Winters, chairman of reputation and chief strategy officer at MWWPR. "It’s like deciding to get engaged with somebody after going on two quickly arranged dates."

Even firms that match agencies with potential clients are noticing that PR agencies are replying less frequently to requests for proposals.

"Companies issue them, and then they’re shocked when they get such a terrible response, and it’s so crystal clear to me why," said Michele Harris, president of Smarti Solutions, a firm that matches agencies to clients. "RFPs come across as cattle calls and a waste of time for agencies. It’s such a turn off."

Because the RFP process can be painful, annoying, and expensive, agency leaders may be reluctant to pitch if they sense the company has already chosen an agency, is just going through the motions, or simply trying to collect agency ideas.

"First, there are the man-hours spent responding to the initial request," Winters explains. "People say you should have that information on-hand. However, every RFP requires some level of customization to rethink your experience and present it in a way so that someone who doesn’t know you at all can, in a few pages, know not only what you do but how it applies to their needs."

There are also additional costs, she says, like hiring outside research firms or designers to fine-tune a proposal and, depending on the client, travel costs.

"Sometimes you find out the presentation is in such and such city on such and such date and you don’t find out until you get three or four rounds in and you’re in the final," Winters adds. "So you go to book your travel and Murphy’s Law puts it in the same city as the Super Bowl."

Experts note that the process requires significant time and, more importantly, money. Winning an account, of course, justifies the time and expense. However, if it’s unsuccessful, either the agency absorbs the cost, cutting into its own bottom line, or passes it on to clients, says Jim Bianchi, president of Bianchi Public Relations, a boutique agency serving B2B automotive companies in the Detroit area.

"If you’re doing churn and burn, putting out RFPs every two years...again somebody has to pay for that," he says. "If the agency spends $10,000 or $20,000 of man-hours to mount this pitch and they don’t get the work, eventually somebody is going to pay."

As a solution, agencies are on the lookout for problem RFPs. One clear warning: a short timeline.

"When we find there’s a short timetable, our feeling is probably that the client has already decided who they’re going to work with, and are going through the process because they have to," says Peter Finn, founder and managing partner at Finn Partners

Another red flag: a lack of a budget, Bianchi says.

"My feeling is if the prospect isn’t giving you a budget figure, they don’t have an approved budget yet and it’s a fishing expedition," he says. "It’s a deal breaker for me. If you don’t have a budget, it’s a deal breaker."

Another sign is a vague description of the work that’s expected, adds Winters.

"[It’s] the same way you can’t walk into a car dealership and say ‘How much is a car?’ because they’ll ask what you want," she explains. "‘Do you want an automatic? What features are you looking for?’ You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to answer that, just tell me how much is a car.’"

Agencies are also wary when RFPs have a lot of bidders. Finn Partners managing partner Bucky Belser says he tosses requests with many agencies unless he already has a relationship with the company.

"Even then, do I want to go to the trouble when there are that many bidders or the company won’t disclose how many bidders there are?" he asks.

Opaqueness of any kind can cause agencies to ignore RFPs. In one example, Bianchi recalls that he was only allowed to talk to procurement, and then only about what he considered unreasonable terms.

"They had set up a conference call at this time for all the agencies bidding to ask questions all at once," he says. "Well, I told them I’m scheduled to attend a convention I can’t miss, but often, it’s their way or the highway, and, again, that sends me a signal. They’re treating me like this and I don’t even work for them yet."

"The phone call is a minimum," Belser adds. "If they do not take call or won’t respond to RFP questions, that tells me it’s wired or something else is going on."

Some in-house communicators say they feel agencies’ pain and are working to fix the problem. Terry Rhadigan, executive director of product and technology communications at General Motors, says the auto giant doesn’t issue RFPs just for show.

"If we go through an RFP and put one out there, it’s a level playing field and everyone’s got a chance," he contends.

He says in recent years, GM has pressed to improve the way it manages RFPs.

"It’s not a perfect process, but it’s gotten pretty good," he says. "It wasn’t always that way."

Rhadigan acknowledges that corporate bureaucracy can be a problem and adds that GM’s buyers have their own metrics to meet.

However, he says GM has worked to educate its in-house buyers, inviting them to comms business meetings and taking them to media events and trade shows to meet PR vendors, and the effort has paid off.

"I must say, the partnership that we had with our buyer was the best I’ve seen," Rhadigan says of the AOR RFP GM issued in 2016. "I think our agency partners would agree with that. We meet with our buyer on weekly basis and have worked to simplify our process."

As for timelines, Rhadigan says that GM tries to be reasonable about timelines and avoids scheduling deadlines around holidays and weekends but "sometimes factors drive a more aggressive timeline." While GM won’t offer budget advice in the first round of an RFP, he says it usually does so in subsequent rounds.

Sandy Pound, VP of consumer communications and worldwide public affairs at Johnson & Johnson, also says her company won’t issue RFPs if it’s already chosen an agency.

"It’s a lot of work for us to put an RFP together, and we take it very seriously," she says. "That doesn’t mean the current agency won’t get the business, but it’s always good to challenge the current situation. You really have to be committed to the process because it does take a lot of work on our time and our business partners’ time."

Pound contends that Johnson & Johnson also avoids cattle-call RFPs. "I’ve never been in a pitch where we’ve had seven agencies," she says. "The most would be three."

While J&J offers budget guidance, she says it also encourages agencies to be creative in their pitches. "We don't want them to be restrained by the budget, but obviously there’s a budget reality," says Pound.

Winters says she’s seeing trends that give her hope. First, companies are changing RFP schedules to meet agencies at the start of the process rather than halfway through.

"It gives a client an idea of how the agency thinks and attacks a problem," she says. "At the end of the day, it’s not the person who has the best idea on a PowerPoint; it’s the team that has the good idea and works well with your team."

And some companies, Winters adds, are abandoning RFPs altogether.

"The second thing I’m seeing emerge is the use of search consultants. There have always been search consultants, but there seems to be more of them," she says. "I think that helps because it’s like the difference between having a matchmaker and going on Tinder."

Some companies are even moving to a try-before-you-buy approach, Winters adds, asking agencies to submit small proposals for specific assignments to see if they’ll work well together.

All three trends just make sense, says Harris.

"RFPs are really a recipe in pain," she said. "It’s a commodity exercise at best and a waste of time at worst. You have to do your due diligence upfront. How do you ask for a proposal without even having a meeting? It’s the equivalent to a marriage. Would you propose to someone you haven’t even met?"

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