(This article was first published in Campaign Magazine 23.12.2014)
RFI submissions have somehow morphed from questionnaire responses into creative showcases, requiring significant investment of time and money. At a recent RFI awards ceremony a high-cost brochure clad in Perspex and one-off magazine with a video were lauded for their high-production values. I fear that we’re regressing to the beauty parades of the 80s and 90s, but just in brochure form.
So what is the problem? If agencies are willing to put in the effort then why shouldn’t we let them? Well, I would argue there are a number of reasons why this growing trend is a cause for concern:
First, if an agency is invited to submit a bespoke response to an open-ended RFI, competing with an unknown number of other agencies, this may create a barrier to entry to the most suitable candidates. It stands to reason that the most successful agencies can afford to be much more selective about where they expend their new business efforts. (Not a problem for the successful agencies, but it is a significant loss to the client if the best agency declines their RFI.)
Second, there is a hierarchy of needs to be satisfied when sourcing a new agency. Each client will have their own needs to ensure that available agencies, for example, have appropriate size, stability, longevity, reach and so forth, before requiring them to compete in the field of creativity (in which we already know that they specialise). The point is that it serves nobody to find a fantastically creative agency only to discover later that they’re not suitable according to more fundamental criteria. The sample crop of submissions described above is illustrative of how our attention can be diverted from the real purpose behind a well-executed RFI.
The proper application of an RFI questionnaire allows for a much higher number of eligible agencies to be approached and considered which – in a market where client conflicts are an issue everybody is still struggling to resolve – is clearly very important. We need to narrow the field by strategy, not show-casing.
Although agencies have been critical of some processes, such as the Superdrug review, most agencies won’t tell clients or especially intermediaries that this trend is a problem. Quite understandably agencies don’t think it’s smart to bite the hands that feed them by criticising open-ended or creative RFI requests. But conversations I have had with industry leaders suggest they would be a lot more vocal if they felt they could be, and they would look much more favourably at clients that behave responsibly with their requests.
Therefore it’s up to clients and their intermediates to do the right thing. The optimal sourcing of marketing services agencies requires both a blend of the best of marketing procurement practices and a depth understanding of marketing needs and agencies.