The trades have been atwitter lately with a number of RFP kerfuffles. First Current. Then Zappos. In the former, the story behind the story was the innovative use of Twitter to source and select the initial agency shortlist by then-Current employee Jordan Kretchmer. In the latter, the epicenter revolved around a blog post from Ignited executive creative director Mike Wolfsohn, who wrote that the agency’s pitch — one of 104 — was given only a cursory glance by Zappos employees.
What did these two cases have in common? What can we learn from them? More importantly, to what extent do they mirror or expose bigger, deeper and more pressing challenges or concerns that remain unaddressed in the industry?
For one thing, it’s clear that new technology matters. In the case of Current, the catalyst was Twitter. Kretchmer bypassed the search consultant world, his Rolodex and the trades’ “Best of Lists” to go straight to the horse’s mouth. In doing so, he also (knowingly or not) instituted an interesting criteria: In order to participate, an agency needed to be on Twitter, e.g., using the tool they’d most likely be recommending. Kretchmer could easily check how long the agencies in question had been on Twitter and also how they used it and other social devices to get his attention.
In the case of Zappos, Ignited used Google Analytics to determine that its online RFP had only been glanced at.
These recent RFPs also point out how tough things are. Agencies are fairly desperate or appear to be when they clamber over one another for an opportunity to sink their teeth into the scraps du jour on offer.
There is a bright spot: It’s obvious that there are a staggering number of small, independent and surprisingly competent boutiques or startups out there right now. (Most of them, however, don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding relative to the bevy of Goliaths muscling them out the equation.)
Also, rules are rules. If you agree to play by them, don’t complain or cry foul if the result doesn’t go your way.
Maybe it’s time to fix the RFP process because it’s not going to get better on its own. In fact, it’s only going to get worse. Here are 10 points or calls to action — arguably even calls to arms.
1. Time is money: Every agency that participates should be compensated. Compensation should increase based on the “round” of the RFP and the level of participation, commitment and contribution.
2. No more spec creative: Agencies that have portfolios and case studies in place should be able to draw on them comprehensively. If an agency does not have sufficient “collateral,” then it’s up to the shop to volunteer or offer up whatever it takes to help illustrate its capabilities and contribution.
3. Ideas belong to the people that created them: If a client likes the idea that much, he or she should hire the agency or just buy the idea. How hard is that?
4. Don’t “break the line”: Agencies continue to undercut and essentially stab each other in the back. If a client or search consultant makes an unreasonable request, he or she knows at least one agency will capitulate and set a precedent that is not scalable.
5. Hold search consultants equally accountable: If the buck stops with the client, then it starts with the search consultant. A search consultant’s compensation should be tied to post-selection agency performance and tenure.
6. Force agencies to walk their talk: In a world that is increasingly contingent on an acute and deep expertise in all things new media, why not expect agencies to prove their level of adoption, knowledge and application instead of showing how well they do at answering 1,000 standardized questions (wasn’t school bad enough)?
7. Walk away: Times are tough, but compromising your values, belief, culture and integrity for a one in 100 shot at redemption comes at a price that you may not be able to bear long term. There are plenty of better ways of securing new business, raising the visibility of your agency and establishing credibility in the market. And clients will notice.
8. Keep it real: Let’s face it, oftentimes this is going to come down to past relationships, lowest price or sexiness. The new CMO is almost always going to hire his or her agency. Procurement is almost always going to tip the scales in favor of the bargain-basement offer. Crispin Porter is almost always going to make clients giddy with their mystique, aura and talking Beetles. So instead of complaining, just get on with it. Accept your lot in life graciously or make a conscious effort to break the cycle.
9. Extend the RFP NDA: Do this to cover leaking or releasing to the trades with instant elimination as the penalty for contravening these terms. It’s one sure fire way to avoid a menagerie of suitors.
10. It takes two to tango: If the client chooses to hire a search consultant who is going to turn immediately to his or her subset of kick-back cronies, then it serves them right if they theoretically don’t get the best available. You get what you pay for. On the flip side, agencies that aren’t selected should take it as a clear sign they need to improve their market/brand recognition and visibility.
With disclosure, crayon participated in both the Current and Zappos pitches, so I guess we were as guilty as the others for perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Joseph Jaffe is chief interruptor at crayon, a consultancy specializing in new media and social media strategy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.