The ABCs of RFPs

**This article originally appeared in the San Diego Daily Transcript on August 13, 2013

A Request for Proposal (RFP) arrives and your immediate thought is a positive one: new business, creative challenge, interesting project, new colleagues, and … money-money-money!

Although Nathan Fletcher was talking about political proposals when he said “…consider the merits of the proposal vs. the source,” its application to RFPs is valid, though I’d edit it slightly: consider the merits of the proposal and the source.

At just about the time your excitement peaks, I recommend that your “oh-oh!” sets in, for indeed, while the opportunity that creates your excitement may prove valid, the investment in your response may be daunting and the pitfalls rampant.

So before your creative juices start running, take a deep breath and consider a pre-proposal investment:

Research, research, research.

You want to know everything there is to know about the issuing company — or at least, everything you can know. The nature and size of the business, obviously, but also the leadership, the management.

Knowing these may constitute a conflict of interests when you reach the interview stage, so the in-house colleague you’re best acquainted with, the one who might feel most comfortable with and most informed about your work may be just the person to whom you won’t present. Often, just the fact that you’re acquainted may disqualify you.

How does the company handle its marketing now? In the past? In-house? Agency? How have they appeared in the media, in the civic or business circuit, locally or not? Is the company — its service or products — generally respected?

Does the company have a problem to solve? A crisis that needs massaging?

If you’re in a pitch for a new organization, find out how it fits into its own business environment and the rationale for its existence altogether. Are they in too crowded a field? Too much competition or duplicated services?

Importantly, is there an incumbent counsel or agency in the competition? Often, a company is required by its by-laws or internal rules to hold a competitive event within a specific time frame, regardless of their satisfaction with their present provider. The presence of an existing provider and its history with the company could be the deciding factor in whether you compete at all.


Check out the odds. Formula: The number of responders equals declining odds.

Assess your investment. What will it take to prepare your initial response to the RFP and, ultimately, in a presentation and interview?

Make sure that you’re not neglecting your existing clients. Consider these issues as they apply to time required, dollars spent and personnel workloads.

Review the company response policy. If it’s not in print or otherwise official, ask about it. You want to ensure that your creative ideas are protected, that your strategies are embargoed. There’s nothing more infuriating than seeing a company using your best ideas undertaken with another agency.

Consider pulling in power. Talented freelancers can partner with you to address specific needs outlined in the RFP — the ones you don’t, or can’t, handle in-house. In my experience, such partnerships are valuable assets in winning the business.

The next step: You’re a finalist! This achievement usually means, “We want to meet you; we have to like you!”

Rehearse. Whatever you do, don’t go cold into a presentation! Boost the strength of your team; study the details, the spirit of your RFP inside and out and assign personnel specific issues that they will be effective in presenting.

Differentiate yourself. Create an edgy or provocative visual or idea that must, at the least, make you memorable.

Lighten up. You’re presenting to human beings. While you must know your business, you may indeed have a sense of humor, a distinctive and positive personality. Feel free to ask your own questions, too, that show your interest and experience.

Too obvious? Business dress. Watch out for too-short skirts, too-tight dresses, too-fussy prints. Unless you already know the company culture is highly casual, men should wear at least sport jackets and ties, or business suits.

Everything counts.

Laura Walcher is principal public relations counsel to J. Walcher