The Proper Carrot: Writing RFPs to Attract the Best Designers

March 1, 2012 | Blog | Posted by allison | 0 Comment/s

You have built consensus with your stakeholders, gotten clearance on the budget and have formed a review team. Now you have to write the dreaded "Request for Proposal," and the cafeteria spinach looks more appealing than the prospect of sitting at your computer and hashing it out. How do you create a carrot that will attract the right firm for the job?

Over the years we have looked at a lot of RFPs, and have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. We thought it would be helpful to share our experience from the responder's side.

First . . . are you certain you need an RFP? We ask because everybody hates them. Firms hate the mental gymnastics required to answer them as much as you hate writing them. Many of the best design firms are selective about answering RFPs, or refuse them outright. We at Rogue Element are very selective about the RFPs to which we respond, and it's our view that most established firms probably feel the same way. Don't believe it? Simply Google "I hate RFPs" and check out some of those links. Communication Arts magazine published an article by Cal Harrison called "A Decent Proposal," where he argued that RFPs rarely succeed in choosing the best talent. We agree with the balance of the feedback provided in all those links, so we won't revisit that here.

Of course, going through an RFP process is often either required by your organization or by law. So if you must do it, here are some suggestions on how to write an RFP to get the best results from responding firms:

Be specific about project goals and constraints: Here's what to avoid: "We want a website that incorporates social media, and is search-friendly." Well, who doesn't? Be specific about the goals: are you trying to attract a certain audience? Are you trying to compete against certain peers? Once you have mapped out your goals, look at your constraints. Are there certain key dates by which you would need your project completed? Are there existing materials that must be matched? Are there brand and identity standards to adhere to? Giving firms solid parameters helps suggest solutions to fit your needs.

Realize you are buying the process, not just the end product. We at Rogue Element didn't always design for higher education clients. It took the trust and vision of that first university client to give us the project to prove that we could. Consider mobile apps . . . did anyone know how to design for the iPad just a few years ago? Don't necessarily discount a design firm because they've never done a project exactly like the one you need. Instead look for proof that they have related experience, are effective problem solvers, and have the creative range required to give your message an authentic voice.

Conversely, the firm that does nothing but your particular project is unlikely to give you a solution much different than the design they produced for your competitor last week. Make sure you are dealing with firms that can effectively translate your message to your audience and not a production house offering cookie-cutter solutions for your unique needs.

Don't send the RFP out to a general site. If you do this, you may get hundreds of responses. Are you going to have time to review them all? In our less-experienced days we found out after submitting one RFP that over 100 firms responded. Yikes! Who on the buyer side had time to review them all? Instead ask your colleagues for referrals on who they would recommend. Develop a short list of no more than six firms. Take the time upfront to do your research on the top firms you'd want to work with, then meet with a few of your favorite agencies face to face.

Give us time to respond. Ten days at least. Preferably a month. But two to three days to respond to an RFP is unacceptable. You are not going to get well-planned responses with an unreasonable deadline, and many busy (read: in-demand because they are good at what they do) firms will simply pass your RFP over if they feel too rushed to respond properly. Provide an opportunity for firms to ask questions. Often those questions will help you clarify your plan, and offer suggestions for unexpected ways of solving your problem.

Give a budget. When someone doesn't have a number in mind or "wants to see where the numbers fall", it reads as fishing for the lowest price. This guarantees you will not get the best firm for the job. The best and busiest firms won't bother to respond to a fishing expedition, and the other firms may either undercut their pricing to get the job (causing billing problems later) or may simply guess at what you need. You can't ask for all the bells and whistles of a Porche-sized project if you know you only have the budget for a Kia. Giving a budget upfront allows each firm bidding to tell you what they can offer you for your money. Then you can compare expertise and the value offered for your budget, gaining a more complete picture of what you're buying.

Never, ever ask for spec work. Never ask for examples of solutions as part of the RFP process. For one thing, professionals are paid for their ideas. But more importantly, any quick solutions that a candidate would come up with before doing the proper in-depth research about your organization's culture and goals would simply be ill-informed, incomplete and occasionally gimmicky. Having strategic thinking guide your message is a much surer bet than the "throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks" approach. Who wants to hope for a happy accident?

Consider compensating each firm monetarily for preparing the proposal. It doesn't have to be a large amount, but it lets candidates know you value their time and expertise. The more a project is seen as a collaboration from the beginning, the better the chance for success. Doing this step also forces you to keep your short list of firms, well, short.

After the RFP is rewarded, provide feedback to all candidates who ask. RFPs take time to answer. To those who didn't win the job, please provide feedback on what they could have done better, or where they were deficient for your organization's needs. Providing feedback improves the proposals you have to review the next time you send out an RFP.

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