Email agencies and why the best idea never wins

Guest writer Daniel Flamberg takes a critical look at how a lot of RFP’s are actually run. Showing us how Digital and Email agencies  might operate during a pitch.

And especially on how Email agencies often miss the mark on an RFP and blow it.

The artificial nature of the RFP process

Requests for information and proposals (RFIs and RFPs) are artificial structures designed to help clients find new the partners they need. They are, by definition, multi-faceted, divorced from the real world, subject to bureaucratic jockeying, rarely focused strictly on merit, and seldom fair. But that’s the new business universe we operate in.

The process is often about as precise, insightful, and successful as online dating. Don’t expect too much disclosure, candor, access, or opportunities to truly understand who the clients are or what they really want. Agency search is a thinly disguised beauty pageant.

Knowing the client and its business

The trick is to accept the artifice by emotionally and operationally separating the pitch from reality. Then try to understand what’s really going on, get out of your own way, and get the assignment. This requires a fair amount of detective work — intelligence gathering about the organization, previous agencies, and the individuals on the search team. You must develop a keen appreciation of what’s going on in the vertical quickly. The objective is to know the client and its business well enough to map your organization’s strengths to its needs in a persuasive way. This sounds much easier than it is. Read on to see why.

Let’s discuss the process of RFIs and RFPs:

A very detailed questionnaire

Like Kabuki theater, searches for email agencies have predictable steps; each is an opportunity to win or lose. There is always an unnecessarily detailed questionnaire sent to a large number of possible contenders. Often written by lawyers and procurement people, it requires much more information than anyone can really process. The questionnaire is intrusive and annoying. The answers are supposedly used to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Briefing meeting with the Email agencies

If you jump this bar and make the short list, you are invited to a briefing and/or a familiarization meeting. Part wish list and part chemistry check, these sessions are controlled by clients with little room for questions, input, or ways to differentiate your from other email agencies. Fearful that they might be wrongly swayed by the smoothest and most seasoned presenters, clients insist that agencies surface the people who will actually work on the business at this stage. The client goal is to deliver the pitch assignment and validate its first cut.

Getting a feel for the agency?

Questions are entertained in separate sessions for each competing agency, though occasionally clients or consultants will circulate relevant information to the entire competitive field. Agencies get excited about this stage while clients see it as a chore. Agencies have to vigorously edit the list of questions to fit the time allotted, usually an hour.

They must carefully separate out questions designed to elicit needed information to execute the pitch assignment from questions designed to show off insight or expertise. Many agencies believe that asking great or insightful questions will distinguish them. Maybe. But there is no correlation between the quality of questions asked and the number of account wins.

Working session: try before you buy

Taking a “try before you buy” approach, many searches now include working sessions between clients and agencies to get a feel for what working together might actually be like. And although both sides are on their best behavior, you can usually glean a sense of who’s the boss, what’s really driving things, and how these guys might be as day-to-day clients. It’s also an opportunity to get directional feedback on the pitch assignment.

The pitch meeting

The pitch meeting is a theatrical presentation staged for 90-120 minutes, often with one agency following another. It is a complete black-box experience. Clients have scorecards to grade the performance and to rate how it meets the previously outlined requirements and objectives. How they are really used is anyone’s guess.

The best ideas sometimes wins

The best ideas sometimes win. Mostly it’s a crap shoot. Nodding heads, smiles, and praise have no direct bearing on the results. Critiques are platitudes and meaningless. Once in 50 pitches might you be told that you missed the mark, made a critical error, or your presentation sucked.

Next the next article we will see the agencies actually go wrong in the process and why they are not selected. If you have any experience in these kind of RFPs please feel free to add comments.


About DanielFlamberg

Danny Flamberg has been building brands and building businesses for more than 25 years.

He is managing partner at Booster Rocket his consulting organization, helping dominant brands extend their share and grow customer loyalty and helping insurgent and start-up brands capture attention, awareness and market share.

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