The Digital RFP Is A Frustrating Mess

Recent research tells us what we already know: planning and buying digital media can be highly inefficient. Google opines that 28% of a media buy is soaked up by transactional costs beyond the cost of the media itself. Ad tech firm Nextmark believes that the labor to execute a digital buy comprises 8% of the cost of media.

Regardless of the exact amount of inefficiency, most agree that the current process is not optimal. In fact, one of the biggest time sinks in the media buying process is the request for proposal, or RFP. If you talk to people on both the buy side and sell side of this business, you will hear that the RFP is often the bane of their existence.

People who work at agencies are frustrated because RFPs are still largely managed through email. A single RFP sent to a dozen publishers can result in hundreds of emails going back and forth among the parties. Think about that! For a large agency that sends out, say, a thousand digital RFPs each year that means that teams are dealing with over 100,000 emails a year -- just about RFPs.



Most RFPs include Excel files that are attached to the emails. Publishers will often change the format of these files (adding or deleting columns) when they respond to the RFP. Publishers may also change the details in a response -- for example, the agency is looking for women 18-25 but the publisher replies with women 18-29. Unfortunately, this leads to media planners having to reformat all the submissions, which takes even more time.

Because the whole RFP process is manual, different teams within an agency cannot easily see what types of rates the other teams are getting from the same publisher. Compounding this problem is the fact that publishers will often call their product different names depending on the client they are working with. The result is limited pricing transparency across an agency, which makes the RFP process less efficient. 

Dealing with RFPs is also no picnic on the publisher side. Sometimes a digital RFP is used as a way for an agency to outsource creativity. “Give us something that has never been done before,” the RFP will ask. So teams will scramble to come up with something that the agency hasn’t seen before.

People on the sell side also struggle with the RFP because the process is not integrated into Salesforce, the sales pipeline management tool that most publishers rely on. With a connection to Salesforce, potential deals must be manually updated each time a deal size changes. This happens a lot in digital media because campaigns can be canceled at any time -- even in the middle of a campaign.

You would think that people would have tried to fix these problems -- and you’d be right. When Donovan Data Systems, the software provider that many agencies use to manage the media purchasing process, recently introduced a new RFP tool in its iDesk product, many people had high hopes. Unfortunately, the tool proved to be unstable for everyday use. As a result, most agencies today still rely on email and attachments to manage the RFP process.

The pending merger of Donovan and MediaBank offers a ray of hope for everyone in media struggling with RFPS. The new company, MediaOcean, would give the business the scale it needs to tackle the industry’s biggest process issues, including RFPs. While billions of dollars have been invested in creating new forms of consumer media, very little has been spent on the industry’s infrastructure. Hopefully, the Department of Justice will approve this merger soon so that MediaOcean can build the operating system that we all need.

In the meantime, everyone working in the trenches of the media industry deserves our understanding and support. With every new web site, targeting capability or other technology that gets introduced, it is these people that ultimately have to implement the RFP process with tools that are decades old.

12 comments about "The Digital RFP Is A Frustrating Mess".
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  1. Shawn Riegsecker from Centro, LLC, December 12, 2011 at 11 a.m.


    Excellent article and thanks for shedding light on the biggest issue plaguing our industry. Because of this it's also the reason clients get watered down media strategies on portals, exchanges and networks versus high quality, integrated placements on many niche sites. Frankly, it's just too difficult to pull off.

    Combine this with clients looking to reduce their spend with their agencies and looking for greater ROI and it's easy to see the stress fractures in our industry.

    Scaling our industry through collaboration software is the only solution to the problem. The good news is these platforms are ready for prime time in 2012. It's going to be a fun future.


  2. Tom Hespos from Underscore Marketing LLC, December 12, 2011 at 1:09 p.m.

    Hey Matt - Thanks for this. Can I get a link to a citation for the 28% Google number? Not that I doubt you - I want to use it for something else.

  3. Steve Mannel from, December 12, 2011 at 3 p.m.

    sounds like a good use case for the cloud?

  4. Matt Straz from Namely, December 12, 2011 at 8 p.m.

    Thanks, Tom. The most recent mention of the 28% figure I've seen is in a recent article by Brian Morrissey here:

    The Nextmark research is here:

  5. Matt Straz from Namely, December 12, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.

    Tom - here is the 28% mention from Google itself:

  6. Shawn Riegsecker from Centro, LLC, December 12, 2011 at 8:23 p.m.

    Matt/Tom, I believe the oft-quoted Google statistic actually comes from an extensive AAAAs report published in 2009. The report studied the effective commission rate of digital versus broadcast. The link to the PDF is below and the information you seek is on page 15.

  7. Matt Straz from Namely, December 12, 2011 at 10:57 p.m.

    Thanks, Shawn. Appreciate the link and your comment!

  8. Joseph Pych from NextMark, Inc., December 13, 2011 at 8:42 a.m.

    Matt, I agree. It's broken. After doing the costing analysis you mention, one of the things that stood out most as needing to be fixed is the RFP process.

    There are fundamental problems with the RFP. It was created for a time when there were many campaigns and few media options (e.g. ABC, NBC, CBS) - more demand than supply. It worked well for Don Draper's crew. But now with the explosion of media options in digital, the marketplace dynamics are inside out. There are far more options than campaigns - more supply than demand. There is no way to efficiently and effectively match campaigns with media programs using the standard RFP method. So, the RFP breaks down in many ways.

    The RFP process needs to be re-engineered - not just automated. Much of it can be eliminated while still keeping the good parts - the ideation and networking.

    Also, FYI... I spoke with Brian Morrissey about the source of Google's 28%. He traces it back to an article he wrote for AdWeek last February: ( It points to research by ThinkEquity Partners. I'm trying to get my hands on it.

    Shawn - thanks for sharing that link to the 4 A's doc.

  9. Faraz Khan from DOmedia, December 13, 2011 at 8:44 a.m.

    The same RFP inefficiency applies to the Digital Place-Based (Digital Out-of-Home) media buying & selling process. The emails / spreadsheets / phone call process you described creates confusion and institutional knowledge is lost.

    DOmedia has built a streamlined RFP process for ad agencies buying Digital Out of Home, Out of Home & Alternative media, and we've seen a reduction in the time it takes to send an RFP since the beginning of its use. In a recent RFP, over 40 media networks were included and 95% of them responded within 24 hours.

    One the biggest benefits of an improved RFP process is that it will allow agencies to buy media on a larger scale, and benefit everyone in the industry. Thanks for bringing this topic to life Matt.

  10. Michael Lamb from MediaMind, December 13, 2011 at 5:20 p.m.

    Matt - Thanks for the excellent article. Unfortunately, the premium space is full of human to human contact and negotiation, all of which is customized by both buy and sell side. Therefore, communication is reduced to the lowest common denomonator - Excel. The IAB E-business standards are a nice step, but collaboration software won't be effective until both publishers and agencies are willing to change their M.O. Publishers need to provide visibility & pricing of premium inventory for planners. And agencies need to negotiate discounts upfront, instead of campaign by campaign. This will facilitate better software solutions.
    Check out MediaMind's Planning and buying solution: Smart Planning.

  11. Norm Page from Grapeshot, December 14, 2011 at 12:50 p.m.

    I would like to think tools like DCLK's MediaVisor and Atlas' RFP tools did a lot to create some efficiencies in the RFP process and that if used properly they can help. The bigger issue, however, is the entire media buying and selling process in general is kaput. As evidenced by the common theme in almost everyone's comments herein. As a market and an industry, Advertising has a ways to go. It's not like there aren't other market models to learn from. Financial instruments aren't bought and sold this way. Want efficient, go buy a NASDAQ traded stock via your ETRADE account. Now *that* model works like a charm, every time. At mind-boggling volumes.

  12. Ronnie Perchik from PromoAid, LLC, December 19, 2011 at 3:33 p.m.

    Matt, the mess you describe is not unique to just digital. Unfortunately media in general has grown so fast, marketers and their agencies have been challenged to keep up with what media fits their strategic needs.

    We have partnered with RUN-RFP, which offers an expedited RFP process using our data platform. This allows technology to drive the process eliminating a lot of pit-falls you mentioned including time, spread sheets and cost.

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