It's Time to Ditch the RFPs and Work With Agencies on Trial Projects Instead

Offering tryouts gives brands insight into whether it'll be a working relationship worth pursuing

Brandweek will feature live discussions with marketing pros at ULTA Beauty, Converse, UPS and more. Meet us in Miami Sept. 11–14 to boost your business and elevate your brand.

The last nine days of March sounded two alarms on the agency selection process. First, several agencies contending for the BMW business learned they’d lost from a press alert. Then came the news of yet another Pizza Hut breakup, initiating the chain’s fifth review in six years.

What a waste! The arduous, extended auditions we call reviews throw the business of advertising off track. They divert attention from answering market shifts now and hold up new work for months. They focus clients on specifications (e.g., size, structure, process) that can’t capture the way advertising actually works and force agencies to blindly create (without the collaboration required to do really smart, quick, effective work). And they prompt agencies to put more energy into getting than serving clients, which shortchanges brands and spurs a continuous cycle of defection. None of this advances advertising.

It’s time to trade the auditions for true tryouts.

Advertising must work immediately and spontaneously to move real people in the moment. You can test and prove the work, but you can’t formulate it. Only live engagement can answer the real questions that the selection process tries (and usually fails) to get at.

What matters is whether the work works and how particular people work together to make it great. That’s chemistry, not engineering. And we can only find out in action. It’s like casting; you’d never pick the actor without experiencing their performance of the script.

Tryouts are real games, not practices. Give an agency you’re interested in an actual assignment that’s essential to your brand continuum, either capturing a live opportunity or solving a pressing problem. That way, even if you don’t move forward with the partner, at least you’ve moved your business forward in some way.

Rather than an RFI, start with simple website scans. Any good agency will show and tell you the background you most need to know right on its website. Is the work entertaining and smart? Does it differentiate? Does it offer brand value? Is it integrated across channels? Does it make you want more?

What matters is whether the work works and how particular people work together to make it great.

If it does, ditch the RFP for a one-hour conversation and bring a problem to solve. First impressions are good, strong and real. Start by asking about the agency’s purpose and how its best attributes are different from other agencies, then ask how they’d help you solve a real problem you have. Need to share the conversation internally? Just record it.

If you like the agency’s approach, give them the job as a tryout. One tryout can lead to the next, so you’re creating new work that builds the brand while cementing agency relationships that really work for you. The best work keeps producing, and the people who make it keep doing more. You’ll be building a relationship on accomplishment rather than hanging on expectation.

Search consultants will be even more valuable in tryouts. Rather than labor over weeks and months to get a client to see and agree on what they really want, a consultant can focus them on immediate goals and frame actual assignments that forward the brand while revealing who works best. The client ladders up to the right place, which is how great, enduring campaigns develop (they’re seldom plotted out entirely beforehand).

To do tryouts, agencies need to be willing and able to start small. When Nike called us five years ago, they’d met us at SXSW and seen our work. They never asked us how many people we had or how we structured accounts. They just asked us to take on editing and categorizing for their content platform: small, unglamorous, but necessary work. That led to strategy and internal campaigns, then commercial scripts and shoots, then social and PR. Step by step, we built work and market share together over four years, much of which continues to run.

Similarly, 360i took on an audience study for Biofreeze and ended up its media and creative AOR. The point is to reconsider the big commitment as the culmination—not the beginning—of effective work with a client.

Tryouts will save time, money and the business itself. Clients can no longer afford to wait six to nine months (or more) for new work. Agencies can no longer afford to neglect existing clients to chase new ones. And advertising can no longer afford the deterioration of agency-client relationships that stem from mismatched expectation and miscommunication, a byproduct of the selection process.

It’s time to put the business of doing business ahead of the business of awarding business. We can do this today. No RFP required.