Experience not required (except when it is)

April 13 As is true of most fairly well-known agencies, we receive a good number of RFPs. These missives are occasionally direct and to the point. Most, though, would have confounded Einstein.

In addition to the standard requests for agency information, RFPs often require participating agencies to provide confidential financial information (we politely decline since it's none of their business). And, if that's a deal breaker, so be it.

Other RFPs will request creative thinking. We'll only submit to that indignity if we've already been selected as a finalist and feel we have a better-than-even chance of winning.

When we have failed miserably in an RFP process, it's almost always because the prospect says one thing, but means another. Case in point: a leading floor wax manufacturing company had heard good things about us and invited us into a 'limited' RFP. Since we had little, if any, floor wax experience (I'm a carpet guy), we were hesitant. But, the lead prospect assured us 'category experience' wasn't necessary (and the RFP said just that).

Now, fast forward to the first round presentation. In between checking their Blackberries, the prospect team asked us about our floor wax-specific credentials. 'Well,' we said. 'We handled ABC and XYZ for discrete projects.' The prospect asked when we had worked for those brands. 'Between 2006 and 2008,' we responded. 'That's it?' The prospect sniffed. 'That's all the floor wax experience you have?'

Needless to say, the meeting went South from there with even more enthusiastic use of their Blackberries by the prospect team.

I'm not sure how to avoid the experience trap when the prospect says one thing, but means another. This most recent holocaust reminds me of another particularly heinous RFP a few years back. We were up against two other midsized agencies in a pitch for a large law firm's business. We'd answered all their questions in the RFP, nailed the presentation and, as is often the case, waited for weeks to hear a decision. Finally, we were told a fourth firm not in the original process had been selected. 'Why them?' we asked. 'Because they have an L.A. office. You and the two other competitors don't.'

Needless to say, there had been not even a hint that an L.A. office was critical during the entire process.

Suffering through a lengthy, costly and time-consuming RFP process with a disingenuous prospect reminds me of an Abraham Lincoln quote which I'm paraphrasing, 'It hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry.'

14 thoughts on “Experience not required (except when it is)

  1. That’s a great observation, Brian. An RFP is, in fact, a part of an organization’s overall marketing program. When it’s poorly executed, as so many are, an RFP can negatively impact an organization’s reputation among a small, but influential, constituent audience.

  2. Thanks for visiting that class, Steve, along with three other classes in one day(!).
    I’m always surprised at how little work goes into crafting RFPs and the many other documents like them, with poorly articulated criteria greatly complicating the selection process, confusing respondents, and damaging the organization’s credibility for years to come.

  3. Thanks Julie. I was just addressing a College of Charleston crisis communications class. One of the students asked if managing a client crisis exacts an emotional toll. I told him it was quite the contrary. Providing clients in crisis with advice is quite rewarding. Pitching disingenuous clients such as the floor wax company, however, exacts a huge emotional toll.

  4. Thanks Abbie. We actually have a rating system that ‘judges’ RFPs. If the RFP scores a certain number or above, we’ll pursue it. If not, Sayonara Sam.

  5. Wax on, wax off!
    The hiring process (whether it’s for an employee or a PR firm) is painfully flawed because the clowns making the decisions don’t know how to spot talent when they see it.
    The question, “What other floor wax experience do you have?” was a clear giveaway. Instead of trying to put your firm in a 2×4 box, why don’t they look to your successes with consumer products in general?
    Hey, I say if I can publicize window cleaner effectively, why can’t I publicize floor wax? I hate working with narrow-minded idiots who happen to be the decision makers.
    What? No office in Liverpool?! Then you will never get my account! 🙂

  6. Ahh, the RFP. We, too, have a love/hate relationship with RFPs. My favorite are the ones that have no budget yet consider price as part of the judging criteria. “Do you want a $10k plan or $100k plan?” “I don’t know, that’s what we expect you to tell us.”
    And then you don’t get picked because of it.
    Oh well, not sure it’ll ever change and I’m fairly certain we’ll keep trying.

  7. Well put, Art. Providing creative is always a slippery slope. Refuse and you’re dumped from the search. Agree and risk having the prospect use your ideas without hiring you.

  8. Thanks Rep. Just bc many people out there are ignorant and use the word so cluelessly, doesnt make it right. I cant seem to find one definition out there that would have the word used except in extremely horrific circumstances. I would like calling a bad meeting a “holocaust” to calling someone an “incessant liar” after a small joke.

  9. I try to respond to RFPs as often as I can in the interest of growing my fledgling design business. However, I turned down a recent RFP, for which I was contacted by the prospective client, when they asked for spec creative. Sorry folks–maybe you should read that story about free milk and a cow.

  10. Valid point, MedGuy. I’ve heard the word used to illustrate a negative outcome many, many times by many different people. That said, I have no problem finding an alternative descriptor.

  11. Great point, Greg. My favorite client ‘stiffing’ story goes back to the dotcom days when, after going belly up, the trustee of a failed dotcom insisted we return about $100k in billings. Needless to say, we had our lawyer write a sternly-worded missive stating that we’d performed the services for which we’d been engaged and that was that. Still, all told, I’ll bet we wrote off several hundred thousand dollars in unpaid client fees during the dotcom bust.

  12. Rep-
    while I often enjoy reading your posts, lately you have done something which is quite offensive- namely, you have used the word “holocaust” in two of your posts where the word was CLEARLY misused. In the above post you used the word “holocaust” to refer to the fact that you didnt get a piece of business and the client misled you. Last week you used it in similar context.
    This term is offensive in so many ways, but particularly bc yesterday was Holocaust Rememberance Day in which the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis are remembered. Just by chance, i met a survivor of the concentration camps last week. 91 out of the 94 members of his family were killed in front of him over a 4 week period. He personally survived 6 camps and is not the only remaning member of his original family. Somehow, i dont think he would equate a floor wax company not giving you their business to having 91 family members killed before his eyes. I may be wrong, but think its a safe assumption.
    This blog is all about image and reputation and your casual use of such a term if offensive and certainly harms the “image” of the Repman.
    I still love your blog and read it everyday, but please remove the word try not to use it in the future when talking about such silly things in life that cant compare to mass murder of millions of people.

  13. In other words, YOU were “waxed.”
    Doesn’t it seem strange that THEY are checking out your financials when, in
    fact, you should be checking them out to make sure they are not deadbeats in
    paying their bills? I’m sure somewhere along the line you’ve been stiffed
    for fees. I know I have.