Published May 2006

Let’s reinvent RFP process,
add interaction

If companies used the same process to hire chief marketing officers that they use when selecting advertising agencies, the wheels of commerce would grind to a halt.

Imagine a CEO saying, “We need a new marketing vice president. Call purchasing.” This is happening in corporate America as the advertising business is seen as a commodity entrusted to the lowest possible bidder.

Gone are the days when advertising agencies were selected on chemistry, powerful ideas and personal insights that translate into industry-defining work.

Today, among the last considerations are chemistry and quality of interaction between agency teams and client. Many clients are dictating price, service terms and advertising strategy in a take-it-or-leave-it approach in request for proposals (RFPs) that leaves agencies scratching their heads.

“Advertising purchase decisions are often handled by corporate purchasing agents. The process is becoming ritualized around return on investment,” says Jim Copacino, founder of Seattle ad agency Copacino+Fujikado. “I don’t see this changing anytime soon. The only way that agencies can combat this is to focus on creativity and their ability to demonstrate that powerful ideas can change consumer behavior.”

That’s tough to do when more advertising reviews often keep contact with agency people to a minimum. Good matches between clients and agencies used to be made with a healthy dose of interaction between parties looking for the right talent match, expertise and fit. Agencies that wanted to invest in learning a client’s business were greeted with an open door. Clients would form an opinion of an agency by the quality of the questions asked and the thoroughness used in investigating the opportunity.

Today’s politically correct advertising review process de-emphasizes interaction. For example, my recent request for an input meeting with a potential client was met with this voicemail reply: “Send me your questions in writing, and we will respond via e-mail to all the agencies. It would be an unfair advantage if we were to answer your questions in person.”

The process isn’t about being fair. It is about finding the firm best suited for the job.

If companies hired marketing leaders the way many are hiring agencies, hiring mistakes would be made. Like agencies, candidates would be expected to write complete marketing plans without any interaction with the company or its people. Research wouldn’t be shared. Budgets would be kept secret. Each candidate’s first meeting would be in front of several people where they would be expected to present their plan. Chemistry would be inferred from how the candidates present in front of a group.

Hiring success is not about skills alone. Attitude, chemistry, leadership skills, personality, building bridges between departments, personal charisma and personal interest in the product or category are what matter most. This is why companies invest so much management time getting to know their top candidates and finding out what makes them tick.

When the right ad agency joins your team, revenues can soar and market share can advance. To make the right choice, invest time and effort to narrow the list of candidates to appropriate finalists. Then invest more time to get to know them in a way that will help you predict what it will be like to work with them over the long haul. Resist all temptation to make the review process an arm’s-length transaction.

Develop a three-tier process that:

  • Allows you to look at many agencies’ standard books. The more the merrier. You will be surprised by what you see, and this will help you to develop a list of semifinalists. And, by all means, don’t require submission of 100-page capabilities statements and financial details at this early stage. Chances are, the best agencies will decline participation, and that won’t serve the process of finding superior talent to get the job done.
  • Provides opportunities for semifinalists to present their capabilities. This should be an open process, inviting each agency to interact as they see fit. This will tell you a lot about working with each.
  • Narrows the field to no more than two or three of the most qualified firms. These are the firms that will invest their time, creativity and resources into demonstrating that they are best for you. Part of the evaluation process should be to rate the way they gather information and how capable they are in gaining insight into your markets. Most of all, let the process be a bit messy. It will tell you a lot.

If clients and agencies alike would follow this process, we’d all be in a better position to do the best work of our lives, and what could be better than that?

If this column hits a collective nerve, let’s continue the conversation by phone or e-mail and possibly organize a seminar or “Webinar” on the RFP topic for a later date. Until next month.

Bill Fritsch, a longtime leader in Seattle’s ad industry, is president of Hydrogen. Call him at 206-389-9500, Ext. 224, or send e-mail to

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© 2006 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA