RFPs are not for underdogs.

This one is tough to write. Several of my favorite clients are the result of Rizen Creative responding to an RFP (that’s “request for proposal,” for those who don’t speak in acronyms).  RFPs are used by organizations to efficiently (for the RFP issuer, at least) get details about services, prices, etc. from vendors and ostensibly initiate a sort of bidding war.

In an effort to improve accountability and reduce favoritism/corruption/nepotism, government organizations are often required by law to go through the RFP process. Fine. So what I’m about to write only applies to those NOT forced by threat of arrest to issue RFPs: A true underdog should never issue an RFP.

Underdogs and RFPs don’t mix for many reasons:

1| RFPs are inherently selfish. 90% of the effort, thinking and creativity involved in RFPs is pushed from the issuer to the respondent. Healthy relationships (with your girlfriend, parents, friends or creative agency) don’t begin so one-sided.

2| RFPs attempt to get something for nothing. Or at least something for real cheap. TANSTAAFL: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. It’s a law of economics. Sorry.

3| RFPs encourage bait and switch. What is promised and what is delivered often bear no resemblance. RFPs encourages those who respond to act as politicians – what great ideas come from politicians?

4| RFPs reward the wrong things. Answer right, win the business. Firms who are forced to respond to a lot of RFPs hire specialists who know little about the craft, but do know how to write RFP responses. In even more cases, RFPs reward “gamblers” who have the time/insanity to throw man hours at responding to an RFP.

5| RFPs ignore the most important part of any working relationship. The relationship. As in a state of connectedness between people. Remember those? You like the good ones.

6| RFPs are inefficient. The basics (How much does this sorta thing cost? Do you have capacity? What’s your approach? Are you qualified?) can be answered through referrals, web site research, a couple phone calls, and/or a couple of emails. If you’re in charge of marketing and don’t already have a focused list of companies that would likely be a good fit for you, you’re not paying enough attention.

7| RFPs make everything a commodity. By definition, extraordinary work isn’t.

8| RFPs provide false sense of impartiality. Points or no points. Committee or no committee. Process or no process. The decision will be made by humans. Humans suck at impartiality. In fact, that’s what makes us useful. To pretend otherwise is idiotic.

9| RFPs provide a false sense of confidence. Just because you put a lot of time, energy and money into something doesn’t make it great. It just helps you to convince yourself that it’s great.

10| RFPs limit your options. To those that are on your list. To those that actually have the time and inclination (at that very moment) to respond. To those that don’t despise RFPs.

I know what you’re thinking: sore loser. Damn right!

I am sick and tired of selling my soul to complete RFPs when the decision was really predetermined (*shock*). I am sick of being being solicited for estimates and proposals with no opportunity to meet the humans I would be working with. I am sick and tired of being asked to give away my team’s brilliant, money-making, customer-endearing ideas for free.

So I’m not going to do it.

But please, still send us your RFPs. We promise you will get a response, just not the one you expected.


Mike Shipman

I hate RFPs. First off, for all the reasons you list. Second, because RFPs are not a good way to get business as a photographer. RFPs for that commodity code are few and far between (there you go, photography IS NOT a commodity). But, for instance, getting work for government agencies a person/business needs to be registered and more often than not go through the RFP process. I have stopped submitting RFPs on the rare occasion there is one that is applicable simply because I don’t have a team to assemble when needed to crank one out. My team is me. I can spend much more productive time doing something else with a greater chance than a snowfall in Hell to push the cashflow along. Great piece!

Nathan Barry

I absolutely agree. In the creative industry there are so many things that you learn about a client just by sitting down and talking with them. As we all know very little of communication is from what is actually said, and in an RFP that is tweaked so many times and made so corporate that it is hard to actually get to the true message.

There have also been lots of times where a client has approached us to solve one problem, and after a meeting we have concluded that their problem is something entirely different, and they were just trying to solve a symptom. Meetings with clients (or at least a longer phone conversation) are essential to a well executed project.

After starting to respond to an RFP a few weeks ago, but ultimately deciding against it, I decided to work out a standard response on the reasons they should meet with us instead. Just basically outlining our views on RFPs and how we think they can get the best value by actually talking to the companies.


I agree that RFP’s are outdated, draconian, and I have rarely found them to be profitable. However, my only caveat is that some good agencies, who have legitimate needs, and are willing to pay for our services, are required by law, or policy, to submit RFP. In other words in some cases it is simply a formality, that can be worked around once completed.

Let’s not relegate our municipalities and non-profits to get design services from sign shops and printers.

And a note to municipalities and non-profits; let’s work together on restructuring failed legislation and policy, so everyone can have the best possible results.

Jason Hunsperger

I agree with meaning that RFP’s are often a formality. However, in those cases the vendor has usually been pre-determined. If you suddenly recieve an RFP in the mail with no idea from where it came or why you recieved it, chances are you are NOT the pre-determined vendor; you’re a chump. The “would-be client” picked your name out of a hat to receive one of the three manditory RFP’s. Another agency (a.k.a. Chump #2) received one, also. And neither of you have a prayer of winning even if you respond via gold-embossed velum scroll delivered by carrier pigeon. The agency that is going to be awarded the work knew it long before they received the RFP.

If someone needs 100,000 gross of 12 ounce-plastic cups, RFP’s work okay, I guess (even though the vendor, again, is likely pre-determined). However, RFP’s have no place in the creative arena. How can anyone select a team to provide such a – for lack of a better work – “tactile” service without ever meeting them?

Would-be clients need to meet would-be agencies face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball. The exchange of ideas, concepts, designs, moods, and emotions needs to be personal. Meet with the principals. Look over their portfolio. Discuss case studies. Talk in the abstract. Find out who best *fits* the project.


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