Finding Your BAF (Best Agency Forever)

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It was one of my first jobs as a newly minted Designer (with a capital D) with a small creative firm.

“Nate, you’ll be working on laying out our response to the RFP for this new opportunity. We’ve got a Word doc going…I’ll send you the draft.” – firm president.

“Ok, sounds good! I’m on it!” – me.

Only one problem: What’s an RFP? After immediately Googling (or maybe Yahooing it…hey, it was the year 2000…) I learned that RFP stood for Request for Proposal, a vendor selection tool outlining the project overview, goals, and the expected deliverables, produced by the Client and delivered to various agencies for bid.

They don’t teach you that in art school.

It made sense though. After all, it seemed reasonable that a client would need a way to articulate their problem so that an agency could put together an approach and associated costs. Got it.

Intent on proving our agency’s worth, we went all in, pouring countless hours into developing a response designed to blow away the other submissions. Intent on proving myself, I set to work on my concept—a 12” square book bound with stainless steel screw posts and a frosted plexiglass cover (cut me some slack, it was the millennium).

When it was completed, the 100+ page proposal detailed several different creative approaches, each attempting to align the ham-fisted RFP language with how our firm actually did the work. We painstakingly explained each phase of the project, outlined associated fees and hyped up the award-winning team who would be on the account. Stock photography of hip young people and a well-crafted narrative about the ways that innovation and creativity could be leveraged to drive strategic business results tied the whole thing together. To top it all off, we packaged it up in a crate of oranges and had it FedExed to the Florida-based Client’s CMO.*

Check and mate.

The greater the opportunity, the crazier the proposal. In competing for Mastercard’s business, we fabricated from foamcore a life sized replica of an ATM machine with the proposal enclosed inside. A provided “Mastercard” was required to open the thing up and gain access to the proposal. The 90’s and the 2000’s was a full-on proposal arms race. It was ridiculous.

What I didn’t realize at the time was just how much business was conducted via this cat and mouse game. The Client keeping her cards close to her chest while blasting out an RFP to as many agencies as possible, hoping to find a fit at the right price. For our part, agencies trying to differentiate with elaborately produced packages, prescribing solutions before ever meeting or investigating. Giving away ideas. Hoping we got it right (or at least, somewhat close). Hoping to make an impression.

Now, decades later, has anything changed? The answer is yes and no, but mercifully, mostly yes! Clients still develop RFPs and Agencies still respond. We are all still drowning in a sea of generalist creative firms, which makes it difficult for clients to find the right fit. And everyone still wants to feel like they are getting a good deal.

What has changed though is the complexity of the challenges organizations are faced with, the fragmentation of audience attention, the complexity of building multi-channel / platform brands, campaigns and experiences that connect and drive results. Solving these problems requires co-creation, trust and collaboration.

With those challenges in mind, here are some tips on ditching the RFP and finding your BAF (Best Agency Forever):

  1. Find 2-3 agencies whose work you admire. Look for case studies where the agency has solved a similar problem to the one you are facing. Check out the results of the work.
  2. Have a conversation! We’re all a bunch of humans right? Let’s test the waters with a phone/zoom chat or even a face-to-face meeting!
  3. The fit should be mutual. This work is fun but it can get intense. Since we’ll essentially be living together for several months, we’re sizing you up about as much as you are us.
  4. Stop trying to compare apples-to-apples (or oranges-to-oranges?). Agencies who solve difficult problems are not a commodity. Throw out your matrix.
  5. If you must put together an RFP, be open to co-diagnosing the problem. and don’t be prescriptive about the solution.

Let’s suppose for a minute that we invest those hundreds of RFP hours into solving the actual problem. What could we create together? How much faster could we get there?

We’re up to the challenge. Are you?

*NOTE: We didn’t end up winning the client in Florida’s business. Turns out the oranges were valencia “juice” oranges. Gah. Next time.