Let me start out by saying I really don’t like the RFP process.

win the RFP

There is one clear winner at the end of an RFP process.

But, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous dictum about democracy: the RFP process is the worst form of agency selection, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Until someone comes up with a better way to discover a great agency partner (not counting the Fast Close techniques and other forms of winning without formal reviews that we teach) we’re all stuck with the old RFP.

Please understand that the purpose of the RFP is not to select good agencies but to eliminate agencies. It’s an exclusion device. You are in. You are out. So don’t hold anything back at the RFP stage. Don’t let important RFP chances be left to some low level coordinator.

The first rule of winning the RFP is to figure out if you have any chance of winning the round. Better to say “no” now rather than going through all the hard work and effort it takes to properly execute a great RFP response. So what are your real chances of winning? Ask yourself what agencies will make it through to the other side. The typical RFP will go out to over 20 marketing firms. Only 3-5 will make it to the next round. And only 1-2 will have a good relationship with someone at the prospect’s company (relationship win). Another 1-2 will be considered “experts” or thought leaders in the prospect’s category (focus win). That leaves just 1, ONE, spot left for some firm to really standout: the one that does something totally different, looks at the market in a different way, or offers up something so unique they stand out. When you get an RFP and you have no relationship, or you’re not an expert in the category, your chances of winning drop significantly. So perhaps you should drop out.

If you still want to respond (we hear this all the time, “But it’s a chance! We can win! Reeeeeeally!”) then follow these 10 RFP Rules.

10 Winning RFP Rules:

  1. Find a Relationship: No matter how outstanding any RFP response is, nothing beats the human factor. Good relationships will put any proposal into the right pile. Always ask for a meeting, follow up and invite the prospect to the agency for a tour (it’s an unlikely but proven winning strategy). Build the relationship. Identify who the main decision-makers are, how they process information, how they think and move to match your response to their style.
  2. Look Beyond the RFP: Before you even begin to analyze the RFP, study the prospect’s industry and brand. Make sure you understand their overall strategic goals and objectives. This provides you with a good context for reading what is both in, and what is left out of,the RFP. The better you understand the market drivers and nuances, the better your response will be.
  3. Dig Deep: With a better understanding of the industry, sort the RFP into “information requirements.” If the RFP requires expertise in a field, or deep understanding of a market, make a note of it. If it requires more “strategic thinking” versus “process execution” versus “creative ideas” this should be noted and reflected in the response. List out all the specific requirements in the RFP and use this as a checklist in putting together your proposal.
  4. Lead with Questions: Have a list of questions and inquiries of items to clarify with the prospect. RFPs aren’t always clear, sometimes by design. As you process and sort the RFP, be on the lookout for areas that are missing, incomplete, or unclear. Structure and organize a list of questions and call the prospect. If they have a formal Q&A session, or a “call in,” go in as if you were on stage. Don’t be like so many agencies, timid, afraid to ask questions, sitting on your hands. Stand out. Be interesting.
  5. Match Language: While going through the RFP, highlight buzzwords, key phrases, and acronyms that the prospect uses. These may be used to describe the market, brand, technology, tools, whatever they use as “insider language.” Be sure to feed these words and phrases back to the prospect in your proposal. Phrases and verbiage in the RFP also give clues as to how the prospect will make the selection.
  6. Establish a Theme: You’ve researched the prospect and sifted through the RFP. Now it’s time to compose your proposal. We are a “creative industry” and our response should reflect that. Make your RFP shine. How can you make your proposal, including the team, services and pricing, stand out from other agencies? What is your overall message, your brand, your theme, and how can you keep reinforcing it? You must fulfill the mandatory requirements, but a strong theme can really stand out by how you demonstrate your agency’s capabilities.
  7. Build a Winning Team: Review the industry, the brand, the overall needs the RFP outlines and select the best staff to handle the response. Make sure to have a strong leader, someone who is not afraid to ruffle feathers and reject bad writing or ideas. Make sure the entire team is actively engaged in the strategy, approach and final sign-off on how the agency is being presented.
  8. Make It Sing: A proposal should be written with clarity, brevity and style. Avoid long-winded sentences, needless jargon, and an overload of “marketing speak.” Keep it short, with snappy sentences and phrases. Cut your words without losing your message. Use images, charts, and graphics when you can. Assume that the proposal will be perused, rather than read, so use call-outs and headers. Long paragraphs of text intimidate readers and will lose their attention. Consistency of voice and format is important, repeat information in each section if needed. Don’t assume the prospect will read each section in detail.
  9. Out-Organize the Sender: Make sure your response has a table of contents and that each paragraph, each page, each chart is clearly numbered. Cross reference each piece of your proposal with the scope of work and format requirements listed in the RFP. Make the format easy to read. Make it easy to find each section that addresses a requested need. And something I shouldn’t have to mention, but I will – proofread and edit the heck out of the response. I can’t tell you how many prospects have told me about an agency that left a previous brand in a paragraph, or misspelled the brand’s name. Silly stupid mistakes can cost you more than this account– it can cost you your reputation in the market. Word will get around.
  10. Submit Early: Almost every agency will end up delivering the RFP response right at the deadline. Help your firm stand out by getting your proposal to the prospect 24 hours early. Take the response to the prospect yourself, if you can, and mention how excited your firm is to be involved with the process. Schmooze with the receptionist, the secretary, anyone you can. Ask if the key decision makers are around, introduce yourself. The prospect is waiting for the responses to come in and will often pay close attention to the first ones arriving.

Winning RFP Proposals:

What many firms don’t realize is there is a clear winner at the end of an RFP process.

There is one agency that impresses everyone by the way they have answered their RFP. How it looks. How seriously they want the account. It all shows through at the RFP stage. If you want to win in the formal presentation part of the review, start first by winning at the RFP stage. Be the favorite going into the next round. Be in the lead right from the beginning.

If you are not getting into the pitches you should, meaning you are not winning RFPs, then you have a problem. Perhaps you don’t realize how much time and effort is going into RFPs by your competition. It’s become high art at many agencies. Make it high art at your firm. If you aren’t sure, give us a call and let’s discuss what to do because the first job of winning a formal presentation is getting into the presentation. Or just email me at [email protected] and we can set up a good time to chat.


Photo by bittersweetvenom