RFPs are costly. As calculated investments, they may have great ROI, but on the whole, they waste resources. Some agencies have gotten to the point where they refuse to participate in the RFP process altogether. On the other end of the spectrum, some agencies get excited just to receive an RFP, submitting each one that comes their way. Which approach is right for you? Probably neither, and definitely not the latter.

Despite the drawbacks of the RFP process, it’s unlikely to die anytime soon, and it remains the pathway to doing business with many brands. For most agencies, it makes sense to include some RFPs in their new business generation mix. The question is: what is the smartest way for your agency to approach RFPs?

It pays to be picky. A lot of introspection and qualification should go into your evaluation of an RFP opportunity, just to determine if it’s worth your time. If you are unlikely to win it (or worse, if the prospect isn’t a good fit), what is the value in pursuing it?

Exercise your right to say “no.” There is a lot of power in rejecting opportunities that are not worth your time; in being selective. Pursuing fewer, better-matched opportunities (instead of more, poorly-vetted ones) will lead to better outcomes.

One of the dangers of RFP evaluation is a thing called “hope-ium.” That’s where you gloss over the red flags that tell you not to respond to the RFP because you are singularly focused on what it would mean for your agency to win the business. When you are thinking about how much you want to win the account, you aren’t focused on how likely it is for you to win it. Desperation doesn’t win new business—quite the opposite.

It’s important not to assume that the RFP is a qualified opportunity just because your agency is one of “the few” to receive it. Firstly, “few” is relative; it may have gone out to 20 agencies. Secondly, just because the prospect has qualified your agency as a possible match for them doesn’t mean that the reverse is true. Thirdly, the bar for “qualification” maybe depressingly low; your agency may have simply come up in a Google search. What a shame to mistake those circumstances for a qualification process.

Finally, for an RFP response to be worth your time, you have to understand how RFPs are won. The point of the RFP is to eliminate agencies, not select them. And your goal is not to avoid being eliminated, but to win. The trick is to evaluate your odds of winning before you reply. If you do reply, use the RFP process to differentiate your agency at every opportunity. This is when you can gain a valuable advantage that sets your agency out from the pack. It’s also why, if you do respond to an RFP, it must be on-point. It is too important to delegate to junior-level staff.

Here are some tips for a winning approach to RFPs:

  • Create a repeatable, defined process to help streamline your evaluation of and response to RFPs.
  • Before you invest in any RFP process, ask questions to determine the opportunity’s worth (see our examples below).
  • Don’t forgo your qualification process out of desperation. If you don’t have enough opportunities in the pipeline, go out, be proactive, and connect with your ideal future clients. It’s an infinitely better approach than reaching for poorly-matched RFPs.
  • Approach the RFP not as a logistical hoop to jump through, but as a key opportunity to impress the prospect and win their business.
  • Include sufficient cross-checks and edits to catch any mistakes and ensure consistency of branding and messaging.

Questions for the RFP sender:

  • Why are you conducting this search?
  • Why did you include us?
  • How many firms are competing?
  • Is there an incumbent?
  • Is this review required by procurement as part of a periodic vendor review?
  • What is the timeline?
  • Will we have access to the decision-makers or executive leadership team in your organization?
  • Who owns the ideas that we submit or present?
  • What role will pricing play in the final decision?

Questions for your agency:

Why do we want to pursue this opportunity?

  • Objectively, what are our odds of winning?
  • What are the fees associated with this account?
  • Is this client and opportunity the right fit for us?
  • What is our motivation? Do we want this because we “need” it, or because it's right for us and we have a good chance of winning?
  • If this is a procurement-led process, how should that change our approach?
  • Can this lead to more work? Either from this client or can it put us in a good position to pitch to others and strengthen our expertise in a specific vertical?

Do we have the talent and industry expertise to win?

  • Is this a core competency of our agency? Do we know this business, service, and opportunity frontwards and backward in our sleep? Do we have a right to win this, or is it a stretch?
  • Do we have the resources to do justice to the work once we win it? Can we match or surpass what we showed in the RFP/pitch process throughout the engagement?

Do we have the resources to pursue this?

  • How much will it cost us to do the RFP (and, potentially, the pitch?)
  • Is it a paid pitch?
  • How much of our projected costs will the pitch stipend cover?
  • Will we be compensated for our time?
  • Does our team have the bandwidth to give this the attention it deserves right now?
  • If we can afford to do X number of pitches per year, should this be one of them? Can we afford not to do it?

Have we met the client or worked with them before?

  • Do we have a relationship with the agency or their team members that would make it more likely that we could win the business? If not, is it worth pursuing despite reduced odds of winning?
  • Would we want to spend a lot of time with them?
  • What is their reputation? Do they change agencies often?
  • If coming from a search consultant, have we worked with them before? Is the consultant a “pay-for-play” shop?
  • What do we know about the client’s budget, and how likely is it that we can afford to work with them?
  • Is this a high profile opportunity, even if they aren’t in our “sweet spot”?

Who owns our ideas?

  • Can we win this without giving away our intellectual property?
  • Will payment affect ownership of creative?

Try applying these questions to your next RFP, and embrace a more strategic, selective approach. See what it does for your win-rate.