A New Way to Write RFPs

In part 3 of the 3-part series, we highlight ways to refine, refresh, and reimagine the process so you can find the agency that’s right for you.

Published by J.P. Holecka on 05.21.2020

As a digital product studio, we’ve seen more than our fair share of RFPs. Not only do we understand how difficult it can be to respond to them — but we can imagine how frustrating it is to create them. In part 1 of this series, we identified some common problems with requests for proposals. In part 2, we suggested alternative ways to find a suitable partner agency. Finally, in part 3, we provide guidance for structuring RFPs to ensure your project is seamless.

Old practices are not necessarily best practices. In fact, in today’s fast-paced, innovation-driven business landscape, it’s rarely the case. And yet the request for proposals (RFP) process, for all its flaws, is still with us.

For years, companies have been commissioning projects through RFPs. And for years, these RFPs have been failing to connect them to the agencies they need, or deliver the results that they hoped for. It’s an open secret in industry: RFPs, in reality, seldom work.

But while there are many viable alternatives that can yield better value for your business, there are also several reasons why companies may choose to stick with the RFP format. Perhaps senior leadership is more comfortable with it, or it’s mandated in corporate or departmental policies — or maybe now’s simply not the time to be testing out a new procurement strategy.

Fortunately, if you need to hire an agency through an RFP, there are plenty of ways to refine, refresh, and reimagine the process so you can find the partner that’s right for you.

Take a Page from the Architecture Playbook

One of the recurrent problems with RFPs is that they require agencies to compete on cost: the lower the bid, the likelier the agency will win the work. Of course, as is the case with anything that comes cheap, quality is inevitably sacrificed.

This shouldn’t be acceptable — and in some industries, it’s downright illegal. If the companies that built our homes or installed our critical infrastructure were allowed to choose partners based on the lowest price offered, our lives would be in danger. That’s why in 1972, the United States passed the Brooks Act, a law forbidding low price from being a criterion when hiring architecture or engineering firms. This led to the introduction of Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS), a procurement process focused on finding the best third party for the job, as opposed to the most affordable.

QBS has since made its way into everything from IT and management consulting to creative services and advertising. According to the Institute of Communications Agencies, the process is ideal for any professional services that are:

  • Custom: designed and built according to the client’s individual specifications.
  • Complex: demanding niche skills and knowledge in order to solve an intricate challenge.
  • Costly: requiring a significant investment both in terms of time and resources.

So how does a QBS procurement process differ from a typical RFP? Perhaps the biggest differentiator is that the company discloses a ballpark budget right from the beginning.

This may seem counterintuitive: if the budget is communicated in the RFP, then all the agencies will price their work at that amount. But that’s actually an advantage. If all proposals are made with the same budget in mind, you can clearly see which candidates bring the most innovation and value to the project.

In an RFP modelled on QBS principles, the final scope of the project, and a fair price for the work, is negotiated with the agency you’d most like to work with. And if an agreement can’t be reached, you’ll simply conclude your negotiations and move on to the next most qualified candidate, which means your would-be partner has plenty of motivation to meet you halfway.

Design a Template to Streamline the Process

Providing respondents with a template for an RFP can save time for your company and the agencies you reach out to. There are different approaches you can take:

  • Delineate several specific fields for agencies to fill out that will allow you to collect detailed information in a way that’s structured, short-form, and highly digestible.
  • Send a shorter, simpler document that describes what you hope to accomplish and why. Invite agencies to propose a solution with as much or as little information as they deem necessary.

The main objective here is to be able to start having meaningful conversations with promising candidates as soon as possible. That’s where you’ll really have a chance to assess the strength of the agency's creative approach.

On that note, your template should start by describing your organization’s purpose, and then providing an overview of the specific problem you’re trying to solve. Provide context beyond what they can read on the “About” section of your website, so that they have a complete picture of your needs as they begin researching and ideating. Your template should also include your budget and high-level objectives, as well as an outline of your success criteria.

Be Clear About All Your Known Requirements

When putting out an RFP for digital or software services, understanding technical requirements is useful — though not always possible in the early stages of a project. You won’t know everything at this point, which is part of the reason you’re hiring experts in the first place. Nevertheless, if you’re suggesting a scope and budget upfront, there needs to be a solid rationale behind it — and a logical expectation of what the project will likely entail.

Think about the features you envision in your final product, and reverse engineer them into requirements that you can list in your RFP. Also, consider taking a survey of your end users. Even though people are likely to tell you what they hate about their average user experience rather than what they love, consulting with your target audience can help your team flesh out requirements necessary for the new project.

Finally, by having a better idea of the requirements for your project, you can outline the specific roles you need your agency to bring to the table — from UX and UI design, to visuals and animations, to front-end coding with HTML and CSS or back-end coding with custom features and third-party APIs. You don’t need to have all this information to write a strong RFP, but being thorough will help you source the talent you need for the value you can afford.

Remove Any Last Ambiguities from Your RFP

Then there are all the little miscellaneous things you might overlook:

  • Can agency teams include freelancers and subcontractors, or full-time staff only?
  • What is the submission deadline for the RFP, and timelines for the first phases of the collaboration?
  • How should proposals be formatted, and do you require hard copies?

These are things agencies need to know, though they may seem low-priority. You might also be inclined to ask for names, titles, and bios of the people who are proposing to lead your project. A word of caution, though: some companies get too granular, going so far as to request personal references for members of the agency team, or require extensive background information such as education and alma mater. This is extreme and rather invasive, and only serves to create tension and skepticism with what might have been a really good team.

At the end of the day, an RFP shouldn’t necessarily be your go-to strategy when hiring an agency. But if you concentrate on quality instead of cost, provide sufficient context and specification for your project upfront, invite a productive dialog with strong contenders, and take steps to eliminate uncertainty, you can write an RFP that gets the job done.

Don’t miss the rest of our series featuring ideas for RFP alternatives that can bring you qualified agencies — or get in touch to find out how we can help you circumvent the process altogether.