RFPs: Why Never Say Never May be the Best Strategy

In a new article “Public Relations RFP Haters (And Lovers) Are Wrong (And Right)for CommPRO and a recent discussion on RFPs with Small Agency Growth Alliance’s (SAGA) Chip Griffin, I argue that the industry would benefit from a more balanced discussion of requests for proposals. 




In the CommPRO article, I kick off with a musical reference - It’s a thin line between love and hate by the Persuaders. I note that while this may well ring true, “reality is generally more nuanced… but not, it seems, when it comes to discussions of PR RFPs.”

There’s no doubt that these discussions have become ideological, so for most there is no middle ground. This, in my view, is not a good thing.           

As I argue in both the article, and discussion with Chip, in a perfect world no agency would ever want to go through an RFP process. As communications professionals we want clients to find us and then hire us with the words “you got me at hello.”  But of course, we do not live in a perfect world.

“In our imperfect world, clients don’t know every qualified agency, and have a responsibility to their management or shareholders for selecting the best firms for their business.”

The goal for both clients and agencies is finding the most efficient path to hiring and being hired. This does not have to start or end with an RFP or an RFP-like process, but they do have a role to play.

The always-say-no school of RFP advice (which is never always say no since there are always exceptions) is based on overly broad-brush assumptions – which include the commonly shared view that clients are often going through the motions. The idea that clients have nothing better to do than spend time on a search to nowhere makes little sense.    

That said, there is a bell curve for searches. There will be firms who will never hire at one end of the curve, and those who go into the process with their decision already made at the other end. But between the two, most clients are genuinely looking to hire – so RFPs, in general, are a significant business opportunity for qualified agencies.

Where I fully concur with “RFP haters” is that agencies should not blindly respond without conducting their own due diligence. 

In the CommPRO article, I highlight three points that matter most:

1.  Is the assignment genuine (where is it from, web scrape or reputable firm; does the RFP signal that the client knows what they are looking for; and, has a budget to pay for it)?

2.  Is the client genuinely interested in working with your firm (have they done due diligence or been referred)?

3.  Are you qualified for this assignment (as a high bar, do you believe objectively that you are among the top 3-5 most qualified)?

While this may seem straightforward, as I note, agencies asking these questions may fall into a behavioral trap: We all want to believe that we are the most qualified and best-suited for any assignment!

When potential revenue is at stake it’s easy to lose perspective on what is and is not a good opportunity. The result – firms chasing business that doesn't match expertise. If you are unable to say no to RFPs that are not a good fit, a blanket just-say-no to all may be the right strategy.

For those who find themselves striking out on RFPs, it may be tempting to blame clients or the RFP process. I note in the CommPRO article, “That this is precisely the wrong thing to do. Instead, ask yourself, ‘Am I pitching for business for which I am qualified, or do I need to qualify myself for the business I am pitching?’”

This becomes a question of strategy rather than ideology. It’s not “never say never,” but “what is the best path for my agency?”

In my experience, a flexible, but disciplined, approach to new business is key to success. This should allow for responding to RFPs when you have done your due diligence and the client theirs, that are time efficient, and where you have an inside track or are likely to have an MVP-level batting average.

No surprise – this is the basis of our Agency Select™ RFP tools which provide qualified agencies and consultants the information they need to determine if the project is a good fit. And, by streamlining the process to make it more time-efficient, ensure a better return on the investment for the agency.


Watch the Chat with Chip Griffin:



Simon Erskine Locke is founder & CEO of communications agency and professional search and services platform, CommunicationsMatch™. CommunicationsMatch’s technology helps clients search, shortlist and hire agencies and professionals by industry and communications expertise, location, size, diversity and designations. CommunicationsMatch developed the industry’s first integrated agency search and RFP tools, Agency Select™, with RFP Associates. 

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