Free your mind. Forget the RFP.


It’s hard to say no to RFPs. If you work in a large organization, Requests For Proposals are as standard as planning committees, timesheets and tall bosses with executive-style hair parted just so at the side. It just feels right, if you’re about to invest a million dollars of budget, to use a hefty form to start the search.

Until you realize: That form is dulling your mind.

Eric Karjaluoto wrote brilliantly last fall that RFPs should die, noting they are bad for the business managers who rely on them. Why? Because if you define exactly what you want, you are not getting a new idea. The process of discovery, Eric wrote, often guides the solution.

RFPs are most distasteful when used to bid for marketing, advertising, or design services. You know: “I’d like to take 25 ads, please, and make them as cheap as possible.” Wrong-o. Effective marketing planning is a bit like family therapy. You enlist an outside expert to understand the issues, explore the problems, and work jointly on solutions. You don’t get good counseling, or marketing, or branding, or creative design, by ordering it like paper from the Staples catalog.

Our own agency just got an RFP today from a large government entity with a huge budget, and we have three specific ideas on media planning that we’re certain would give them a 30% lift in performance. Hint: These guys aren’t doing anything on the internet, and we know how to make that work.

And so … we’re not going to bid. Sorry, gov’t sirs, your RFP asked for cheap advertising — lowest-cost quote wins — and our ideas on getting you results just won’t fit inside your RFP box.

(Photo: Freg. Inspiration: Darryl Ohrt.)

6 thoughts on “Free your mind. Forget the RFP.

  1. Good stuff Ben,

    I totally agree, a complete and utter waste of time, never mind the paper..

    Went through the process last week for a large state contract and was so disengaged by the entire process, that if it wasn’t for my wife, I would have totally blown it off.

    They wanted 5 notarized copies of a 60 page document for PHOTOGRAPHY no less, I mean come on they could have shortened it to like a single page and left out all the other fluff.

  2. Good stuff Ben,

    I totally agree, a complete and utter waste of time, never mind the paper..

    Went through the process last week for a large state contract and was so disengaged by the entire process, that if it wasn’t for my wife, I would have totally blown it off.

    They wanted 5 notarized copies of a 60 page document for PHOTOGRAPHY no less, I mean come on they could have shortened it to like a single page and left out all the other fluff.

  3. Thanks. I wouldn’t mind them so much if the RFPs left room for creative responses, something like “50% of the selection will be based on the originality of your method and your forecast for results.” But when they want cheap, instead of intelligence, we take a pass!

  4. I don’t know why you’re complaining. There are plenty of RFPs in the world, take your pick and respond to the ones that are worth your time. All RFPs are different. If you’re not a good match for the project, don’t waste time write a proposal for it. Some RFPs are written to tell you exactly what they want because, surprise surprise, they apparently know exactly what they want. Maybe they don’t want your creativity in the project; that’s their choice. If that’s not your style, pass it along to someone else. Trade it in at the RFP Database and find projects that are worth your time.

  5. David, fair enough. People make decisions differently, and if some need 100-page forms to do so, bless them. I do think they should leave a little room for the idea that their minds cannot predict.

    No committee, and no RFP, would ever have solicited the iPhone, the light bulb, the airplane, or a site that recirculates RFPs. Be careful what you ask for, because that may be all that you get.

  6. That’s true (sorta), but I bet Apple did outsource for parts of the iPhone via one or more RFPs, not because they wanted their vendors to give them their creative thoughts, but because they wanted to get pricing for the components to the iPhone, wanted a vendor to assemble the parts, wanted a company to install the BIOS, etc. etc. Not all projects put out for bid via a RFP are for creativity; some are simply for what they want.

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