Commentary

Ditch The RFP: Four Ways To Streamline Pitch Process

Every marketer knows the agency bait-and-switch technique: Shops use their all-stars in the pitch, but man the account with new hires.

Likewise, veteran agency execs know the sinking feeling of signing on with a client that seemed reasonable but turns out to be a psychopath.

While human nature is partly to blame, the industry’s continued reliance on the archaic RFP process is the big culprit.

Yes, I realize that ranting about RFPs is nothing new. Hand-wringing pieces on this topic are as common in the ad press as agency report cards. But as consultants move in, agencies no longer have the luxury of submitting to a process that drains resources and goes nowhere. That’s why it’s time to streamline the mating ritual between agencies and marketers. Here’s how.

Scrap the RFP. It’s bad enough that agencies have to burn resources on RFPs that probably won’t pan out. When marketers prolong the process for months, they only exacerbate the issue.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. As industry consultant Avi Dan has noted, most RFPs ask for standard items like management bios and client lists that the marketer can find with a basic web search. And even that information isn’t very useful because it reveals more about what the agency has done in the past than what it could do in the future.


Involve a neutral third party. Agency-of-record relationships have given way to one-off assignments. As a result, agency search firms like Pile and AAR partners are acting less like search firms and more like consultants.

They are the referees of the pitch process, advocating for each side and keeping the conversation on track. If you’re a marketer in search of growth and you’re planning to commit to an agency for years, or if you’re launching a $1 billion project, paying five or six figures for a good consultant is a justifiable expense.

Assign trial projects. A foolproof way to test a freelancer or part-time employee is to give them a small assignment and see what they do with it. Agencies and marketers can do the same. This creates a situation where either party can gracefully bow out if the chemistry isn’t right. It’s also fair to the agency, which gets paid for its work, and to the marketer, which (hopefully) gets a useful campaign that has a real impact on sales.

Use tissue pitches. Named for the days when marketers sketched rough ideas on tracing paper, tissue pitches mimic the usual pitch process, only much quicker and without the creative. AutoTrader recently employed the tissue pitch, bringing in six chosen agencies for an “immersion day” to get to know the company and its challenges. The agencies presented their ideas a few weeks later, trading slick pitches for rough ideas.

While some agencies and marketers accept that drawn-out, "Mad Men"-era pitches are part of the landscape, it’s time to reassess. Everything we thought we knew about marketing has changed in the past few years. The pitch process has to follow suit.

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