Last time guest writer Daniel Flamberg took a critical look at how a lot of RFPs are actually run. Showing us how agencies and ESPs might operate during a pitch. This time we look how it all goes wrong.
How Agencies often miss the mark and blow their chances in an RFP
Let’s take a look. There are very few brand new clients. Everyone has a history in business and with agencies. Some are notorious in the way they deal with agencies. If you encounter these guys, run the other way immediately.
You can easily blow an RFI or e-mail marketing RFP if you ignore a client’s context and content. Focus closely on revenue performance, past campaigns, current or previous positioning, senior executive changes, industry dynamics and who is on the search team, and the dynamics among these individuals.
Finding clues how to win an RFP
If you don’t zero in on the search team, you will surely miss the clues on how to win. Each team is a combination of working-level players, advisers and budget controllers, and senior honchos. Rank sometimes indicates voting weight or influence. Know who writes the email marketing RFP. But many of these guys individually or in smaller groups bring hidden and not-so-hidden agendas to the party.
Personalities can have a disproportionate impact on the decision. Consultants try to shield this information from you. But if you don’t know who you are dealing with and the likely distribution of power and influence, you’re out of it before you start.
Tactic one: Don’t confuse detective work with business
If you aren’t good at intelligence gathering, you’ll never win a pitch. The good news is that much of this information is public or accessible by tapping your individual and collective networks. The agency world is a small town, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. If you don’t take advantage of this fact, you’re dead.
But don’t get carried away. There is a necessary and sufficient amount of data to collect to pick apart the process and mount the pitch. This is different from the data you’ll need to actually do the business. If you confuse the two, you’ll waste valuable time and resources gathering information that will not materially add to your ability to win the pitch.
Failure tactic 2: Ignoring the brief
The pitch brief is a document hammered out by a committee filled with boilerplate and stilted language. It’s the ultimate bureaucratic output that more often obscures than illuminates the client’s true need. But buried in there is a list of stuff the client wants to know. Some agencies unilaterally decide to ignore this because they think they know what the client needs to know better than the clients themselves or their advisers. This is a high-risk strategy. If you decide not to tell them what they asked for, you’re usually done for.
Again, don’t get carried way. Understand the general thrust and the necessary documentation to prove your case. Every so often you get an OCD search team that insists you present specific data in a specific order to an exacting time table. But most want the basic information in any way you think works.
Extrapolation of questions
Some agencies interpret or extrapolate the questions in the brief and do lots of extra primary research to demonstrate how much they know or care. This can cut either way. Sometimes the research yields riveting new insights or documents and validates an idea that has been percolating within the client team. Sometimes it’s just more of what they already know or worse – it contradicts the client’s standing hardcore beliefs and automatically disqualifies you.
Linking the needs to your strenghts
The key is to do the math and connect the dots for clients linking your agency’s cases, experience, and strengths to the clients’ needs and questions in ways they can easily understand, process, accept, and score in your favor. As you do this, watch how much you guild the lily. If you don’t carefully structure the presentation and recap the points they’ll need to choose you, you’ll lose them and lose the business.
Failure tactics 3 and 4: Improper focus; wasting time
Focusing on you, not them
Most agencies have standard ways to pitch and a usual cast of characters who do presentations. This is a strength and a trap because it’s very easy to get caught up in your stuff and ignore the client’s stuff. The clients don’t know your shtick and don’t care. They aren’t interested in or wedded to the usual sequence of presentation, your favorite stories and jokes, or the patented processes or named stages of your strategic or creative process.
Clients care about what you can do for them. Choosing an agency is a primal, selfish decision. Who you are, how smart you are, and what you’ve done before are mere formalities that got you to this moment.
In the pitch, clients are living in the moment; they are listening to the logic, looking for snappy ideas and graphics, trying to figure out if you look like their 6th grade teacher, and trying to intuit how fast and how high you’ll jump when they call with unreasonable last-minute requests late Friday afternoon. People buy people. After that, goods and services get transacted. The artificially rational process disintegrates into an emotional free-for-all. Ultimately they are deciding who they’ll bet their jobs on. If you don’t make them feel safe, covered, and in control, you lose.
Becoming pitch chum
In a significant number of cases, the search team starts the process with one or two favorites going into the pitch. They know from the get-go that the winner will be one of these agencies. They select a third or fourth agency to make it look like an honest horse race, but you’ve lost before you start. This is more frequent in searches that closely follow CMO turnovers or corporate mergers.
If you ignore the warning signs or the predictable behavior of known CMOs, you become pitch chum and waste your time, energy, and resources on an RFP that you have no hope of winning. Everyone in the process — the pitch team, the search consultant, and the real contending agencies — have interests in withholding this information from you. But if you ignore the warning signs or fail to rigorously test for this situation at the outset, you will demoralize your team and disrupt your own business. Don’t forget a typical RFP can cost up to 30 – 40 hours.
Avoiding disaster begins with recognizing, understanding, and internalizing the fundamental truths that drive any RFI or RFP process. Every RFI and RFP begins with a burning need. Often it’s simply that the new CMO wants his or her own agency. Often it’s a combination of a practical need and a frustration with current agency partners. No matter what the catalyst, the RFI or RFP process is about fighting the last war and compensating for perceived deficiencies in the company’s current marketing or media arsenal.
The principal drivers of client needs are the desire for better-performing creative, more-efficient media spending, and faster, cheaper, and more congenial and streamlined production. Once in a while, clients want insight and vision. Everyone says they want it; few really do. In fact, most searches kick off with a new vision already partially congealed.
In as many as 50 percent of the searches, clients fall out of love with the people on their business or they’ve been eyeing a competitor’s agency. It’s a high-pressure people business. No one can indefinitely put up with too many prevarications, lies, zigs, and zags compounded by missed deadlines, over spending, and wrong forecasts. The old saw – you start losing a client the minute you win the business – is true.
As described above, at each stage in the process, there are behaviors, assumptions, or approaches that are always automatically fatal in the process. Try not to do them.