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Rethink Your Agency’s Approach to RFIs & RFPs

Posted by Mark Duval on May 9, 2019 6:15:00 AM
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Chris_ShumakerI recently had the opportunity to interview Chris Shumaker, former CMO of the Martin Agency, FCB Worldwide, Publicis USA, and Grey NA. Chris has a wealth of knowledge about the RFP and RFI process, which he’s generously shared with us here.

Editor’s note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mark: I saw a post on LinkedIn recently from an agency search consultant (Lindsay O’Neil, of the Mercer Island Group), who (while reading a stack of agency RFI responses) wanted to remind agencies that they should make sure their “objective” is actually an objective and not a list of tactics or what they have accomplished. Why do you think agencies have such a hard time understanding the basic principles of how to write a good RFI?

Why do agencies struggle with RFIs?

Chris: I also saw that Lindsay O'Neil post as well and commented on it. I said it's not only about objectives and understanding what an objective is; it's also about insight. Oftentimes, case writers don't even know what a proper insight is and it comes across as something else. It's troublesome; after all the years I've been in the agency business, the majority of case studies I have read have been terrible – I mean the objectives didn't match the results, and the insight wasn't an insight, and they just didn't know how to articulate a great story. Why is that?

Most likely because the most experienced, senior-level people are not writing case studies. I was having a conversation with a consultant, and he was saying he doesn’t think agency leaders give RFIs enough attention because they seem to relegate them to mid-level or junior level people and they just aren’t taken seriously enough. The interesting thing is, you have more competitors during the RFI stage than at any other time in the review process. If you're ever going to try to flex to break through the pack and get some momentum, it's then. You don't just mail it in.

Editor’s note: In February 2018, Phil Asche & Hayes Roth of Relationships Audits gave a presentation to the 4A’s New Business Committee that included a sample summary report of pitch outcomes and how agencies performed. Of the ten hypothetical examples given, four performance summaries specifically mentioned RFI/RFP performance as a determining factor in whether they won a pitch.

agency RFI RFP

Mark: Through the years, I’m sure you’ve seen your share of really bad RFIs or RFPs – can you share a story or two about that? And alternatively, what have you seen that's been really impressive; have some of those RFIs, RFPs stuck out in a good way?

Chris: I think the problem is that sometimes agencies look at RFPs and RFIs as business documents required for the process and not as marketing documents essential to competition. I think it's the orientation; those are two different mindsets. They are setting the bar too low. In reality, it's an opportunity to separate from the pack, not be in the pack. I see RFIs as a way to gain momentum and I've always benefited from the fact that other agencies don't see it that way; that was always my competitive advantage.

“RFP responses can help you separate from the competition and gain momentum.”

— Chris Shumaker

Mark: To your point that so many agencies seem to be mailing it in, it really gives you an opportunity to stand out if you approach the RFI and RFP in a more serious way. Because it's your first time to make that initial impression to your potential client.

Chris: Absolutely. Speaking about bad RFPs, I asked my consultant friend what he sees a lot of and he said, “It's amazing, clients comment a lot about how many typos and errors there are in the RFPs.” And to that point, recently I was able to read an RFP response where they got the client’s name wrong in the first five pages, and this was a big agency too. Amazing.

Not only do some agencies appear to have a hard time identifying objectives and confusing observations as insights, but they add insult to injury with typos. Agencies need to understand that clients aren’t trying to hire an agency from the RFP. They're trying to eliminate them. This is an elimination game, this is about being cut, this isn't about winning. You will not win at the RFP stage but you will definitely lose, so don't hand them a reason to cut you.

better RFI

Write a better RFP

Mark: Last time we spoke, you mentioned that each of your RFPs is written around a theme; from beginning to end, they are all about how you might solve a problem for the prospect. Can you talk about how you might identify the problem that you are going to focus your RFP on, for agencies that are trying to understand what that looks like as an applied strategy?

Chris: I have a rule that I never answer an RFP without first talking to the client that sent it to me. If I can't have a conversation with them about why they sent it out, then sometimes I won't even respond because it's that important to find out where they're coming from and what this is really all about. You have to ask and find the hidden agenda. We are in a fiercely competitive business. To win, you need to understand the bigger picture in order to properly qualify and capture the opportunity.  

This leads me to some examples of good and bad RFPs. I think there's a spectrum of effort with RFPs. On one end of the spectrum is “functional,” the view that the RFP is a functional document that must be dealt with. The standard tends to be, “Is it adequate, is it acceptable? Just get it out the door to meet the deadline.” RFPs on this end of the spectrum aren’t inventive and they definitely don't grab attention (or at least not the right kind of attention). There's just not much creativity or personalization; the covers tend to say “Response to RFP,” and these RFPs are very boring, generic, and invisible. That’s one end of the spectrum, and I think that is probably where most of the RFPs, unfortunately, tend to be.

On the other end of the spectrum is “excessive,” the ones that go way over the top. I heard a story where an RFP response was delivered with a full-sized wedding cake to a consultant with a message that said, “We're ready to marry your client,” or something like that. The wedding cake was delivered and what the agency failed to do first was to find out if the consultant was in town. Unfortunately, the consultant was not in town. So it was delivered, and the consultant's neighboring business owners ate the cake while he was gone. He came back and they showed him a picture of it, saying, “We didn't want to wait for you; you weren't going to be back for a week.” So that’s what I consider excessive.

RFP Spectrum:
Functional — Strategic — Excessive

In between functional and excessive is what I'll call “strategic”; these don't go over the top nor are they invisible. They are relevant, engaging, easy to read, and show genuine interest in working with the client. I think that is the sweet spot and relevance is probably the most important thing you want throughout the pitch process, starting with the RFI and RFP.

You asked about a theme. I believe that there is a bigger picture; there's always a hidden agenda, what the review is really all about. Rarely is it simply that, “We need better creative.” Sometimes it is, but oftentimes there's another reason behind this whole thing, and that's what you try to learn by asking smart questions — the hidden agenda. Whatever that true underlying reason is for the review, that’s where you will find your theme.

agency approach to RFI and RFP

For example, one time there was a large global client that we were pitching and we were trying to uncover what the pitch was really all about. It turned out that because they had multiple agencies on the account, what they really wanted were partner agencies who could work together as one unit, not as competing siblings. It had become a huge pain point for them and it wasn’t productive. And so, during the pitch process, we made sure the partner agencies on our team genuinely worked together seamlessly, liked each other, and actually knew each other as people. The chemistry between them was critical. The theme for this pitch was simply, “Coming Together,” which immediately resonated with the clients.

Once you have your theme, you address it head-on, so when they start reading your RFI or RFP, it's relevant from the moment they lay eyes on it. As soon as they see the cover and the title, they're thinking, “Yes, that's exactly what we're trying to do.” It's not some trick, it's just basically understanding what the search is really all about, and making a connection on that level. Thematically, you make everything you present super relevant to the challenge they're trying to solve.

Years ago, a consultant told me something I took to heart and I never forgot. He said, “you have a nice way of talking about the agency through the lens of the client's world, so everything is relevant to them.” For instance, I didn't just answer how many accounts we had and what size they were. I understood why those questions were being asked and responded accordingly. What the client really wanted to know was where they fit in. There's a reason behind every question and if you can bring that up to the surface, it just makes it so much easier for the client and better for you.

Going back to case studies, I think where agencies don't do a great job is giving the case studies the most relevant titles. For example, let's say you find out the prospect you're doing the RFP for is outspent and they're looking for something that you've done that's relevant to their situation, and you have a case study. What I would do is title that case study something along the lines of: “How to Take a Client Outspent 5:1 and Grow Them 20%.” Give the client a chance to quickly see the relevance of the case to their situation. Get them thinking, “You're speaking my language. I'm in.” I like to lead with the results and then explain how they were achieved. And by the way, be different and give your client credit for their contributions, which agencies do rarely, if ever. That’s another way to stand out.

I know an agency that every time they do an RFP, they take new bio pictures relevant to the prospect. If it's a restaurant, they take pictures of their team members in the restaurant. Whatever the opportunity, without spending a lot of money, they take the steps necessary to customize the RFP so it’s immediately relevant to that client. It has worked very well for that agency and it sends a nice message to the client about their level of interest. They also call out the relevant experience on each team member’s bio so the client understands why that person is on the team. Simple stuff. Just imagine reading 15 responses in a row and you will suddenly appreciate little things like call-outs and subheads.

If you don't show they’re worth the effort to personalize your response, if you don’t make everything relevant to them, if you don’t ask questions to get to the underlying’re just making it harder on yourself.

Mark: If an agency just followed those three points — personalization, relevance, and business results — if they follow that pattern, they would be writing a better RFI or RFP just by utilizing those three things.

It was interesting that you’re talking about getting below the surface pain. That’s something we talk about often with our agency partners. How to get to the real pain. Because everyone will tell you it's because of one reason or another, but if you have an effective questioning strategy, you can get past that a bit. They never really tell you directly the real issue or real problem and sometimes they don't even know.

I like what you said; that you will not respond to an RFP unless you have an opportunity to engage with the individual who wrote it, and I think that is a great point. Do you have a set of filters; do you have a solid list of three to five questions that must be answered with a yes or you will not pursue that RFP?

Is the opportunity worth your agency’s time?

Chris: Qualifying is one of the most important things an agency can do. Proper qualifying can save the agency a lot of time as well as give them a head start in the process. Some agencies have very formal methods, some don’t have methods at all. My method has always been to ask some key questions that will get them talking about everything from creative appetite to money to desire for fame.

I try to find out their appetite for doing really disruptive work – because nobody wants to do invisible work. But some clients have the mindset that they don't really want to rock the boat; they think, “I'm okay, I just want to keep doing what I've been doing, I just need a different partner doing it.” And those are perfectly good answers, but that’s just not what got the agencies I was with out of bed in the morning. The client’s appetite for creativity has always been big for me. I also try to learn about the clients themselves, what their experience has been working with agencies and who's involved in the decision-making process.

Sometimes if the process is too convoluted or too layered, I will walk away because it doesn’t help our odds of winning. In addition to creative appetite, I also try to learn as much as I can about the search process and personnel in terms of who's really involved. Who's making the decisions? When do they enter the equation? Are they at the final meeting only? Who are the day-to-day clients? Who's reading and evaluating the RFP responses? I also like to follow-up some questions by simply asking, “And why’s that?” This gets to deeper answers. The more you know, the better you can develop your pitch strategy.

Mark: And that’s the basis of a solid questioning strategy; just asking that one simple word, "Why?" can reveal so much. Is there a certain number of agencies that if you ask the question about how many are a part of the RFP or RFI, is there a threshold at which you would say no? For example, if they said, “Oh yeah, we have thirty-two agencies participating, or we have twelve,” at what point do you say, “Thanks, but no thanks?”

question strategy

Chris: Well, generally when someone issues an RFI, I expect they're putting up 10 to 15. If they're putting out 25, that would get me concerned. Because now they're doing a shotgun approach and I'm not sure they know what they're looking for, or maybe they're inclined to say, “I'll know it when I see it,” which is kind of a scary thing too. So when it gets too wide like that, it’s a little suspect.  

Mark: Earlier you mentioned your “clever qualifying” technique to learn information that prospects don’t want to tell you. Can you give an example of what that looks like?

Chris: Sure. Another thing I’d try to find out before responding to an RFP is the budget. For large national advertisers, this is less of a concern because the budget range is pretty obvious based on media spend. But oftentimes smaller, lesser-known clients are not willing to share the budget range because there's a mindset that if I tell you I have a hundred dollar budget, then your estimate will magically be a hundred dollars. They'll say, “We'll let the agencies tell us what it is.” When the truth is – as we all know – people can't run a business with a question mark line item on their advertising expenditure. It’s not as if they are going to go tell the CFO what the budget is when they get it figured out.

In fact, there is a number, they know what it is, and they at least have a range of what they're able to withstand from a business perspective. And even when the clients don't want to share that information, good consultants will still be happy to. Because they know it's an important question and it's a good question to ask because agencies are businesses too. You have to know what the prize is – what is all of my effort going to reward me with beyond this relationship? It’s just proper qualifying, which helps both you and the client. No one wants to waste their time.

For the clients who aren’t forthcoming about their budget range, I try to learn the information by asserting what I think it could be based on their business and distribution and what not. My estimates are wrong of course, but they always seem to be willing to correct me, which is how they give me the qualifying information I am seeking.

I think this has worked so well because it’s human nature; people don’t allow me to walk away with the wrong answer, I believe, because they're innately honest, good people.

Mark: I love that we’re talking about money. I think you need to get to the money conversation early on and so many agencies are fearful about discussing money because they're afraid it's going to scare the prospect away. This is another useful strategy agencies can use to help pin down the budget question.

Parting thoughts

This is a portion of the very informative interview we had with Chris Shumaker. Chris recently gave a presentation at the 4A’s Manager Practitioner’s Forum in Chicago about how to win a pitch when you don’t have the “winning” work, and you can catch his upcoming webinar on the same topic on May 21st. I’ll get into some of his pitching insights in a follow-up post, so stay tuned for that.

One of the biggest takeaways from this interview is that agencies need to change their perspective and their approach to RFIs and RFPs in order to increase their success. I’ve written about a similar need for agencies to change their perspective and their approach to prospect meetings. These changes are within reach of any agency, requiring low to no resource investment. Any agency can take steps to implement these changes right now and improve their new business outcomes.

For example:

  • Assign RFIs and RFPs to more experienced team members with stronger writing skills
  • Aggressively proofread all RFIs and RFPs to eliminate errors
  • Qualify all RFI opportunities and pursue only those which are a match for your agency
  • Uncover the underlying “why” for every prospective client’s RFI and shape your entire response around that theme
  • Customize all aspects of the RFI and RFP, treating it as an opportunity to stand out, not just a hoop to jump through. Apply strategy and creative talent to these documents.
  • Use “clever qualifying” to get better ballpark budgets from prospective clients
  • Know what objectives and insights are and use those terms correctly


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Image credits: agency RFP ©  Adobe Stock / Ivan Kruk; better RFI © Adobe Stock / Gajus; agency approach to RFI and RFP © Adobe Stock / nikkytok; question strategy © Adobe Stock / tostphoto.

Topics: Insider, RFPs & Pitching

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