If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, do you need a beauty parade?

When it comes to choosing a creative agency, does size really matter?


It is often the case that large organisations will have some PQQ and RFP (Pre-Qualification Questionnaire and Request for Proposal) process set in place by their procurement team for all manner of purchases from widgets to services that the company may require.

However, there is a question to be asked as to whether the PQQ/RFP system is nothing more than a pointless beauty parade when it comes to appointing the services of creative agencies. Blair Enns (Win Without Pitching Founder) in a recent article wrote on this very issue and concluded that as a process, it is certainly not being used as an effective and transparent tool to select a creative partner. He writes “Leah Power and I interviewed a former global marketing procurement chief from a Fortune 100 company who confessed that most of the time when an RFP is issued, they already know who they want to work with.” Not only that, he goes on to report that he “heard Kellogg School of Management professor and Negotiate Without Fear author Victoria Medvec advocate to buyers to use RFPs to surface alternatives to the desired solutions as a means of enhancing negotiating position, not as a means of selecting the right solution.

It seems that not only is the process itself becoming nothing more than a tick box exercise, it is also a means of being able to negotiate over the value of the contract. This suggests that one creative agency is fairly interchangeable with another, but these dynamics change when considering specialised firms with years of experience. How do you compare the value of a generalist agency to one that specialises in your sector with over 30 years’ experience?

Taking the process itself, in a Marketing Profs article from 2020 they reference 2019 research from Loopio which shows that of 500 companies surveyed, the average time it takes to create and submit an RFP was 10.5 days! Not only that, the average time spent writing a single response averaged 23.8 hours. For the companies placing the RFP/PQQ, there usually follows a raft of queries that they have to answer before receiving the bids and then they have to sift through all the responses to end up with a shortlist to move to the next stage – all of which takes time and resource.

Whilst there are a lot of nuances to the figures in the article, for design agencies wishing to bid for work in this way, larger agencies with significantly more resource will be better placed to not only absorb the cost in responding to the PQQ/RFP, but also to find the time to complete the work in the first instance.

There is an industry devoted solely to writing successful tenders as well as specialist software programmes to help you autocomplete PQQ/RFPs. Again, these come at a cost so micro and small creative agencies have to evaluate the cost/benefit ratio, particularly since, in many instances, the initial PQQ/RFP will not actually get you the contract – it is simply the first phase. If you do make it through this first phase, there often then follows the next stage with further shortlisting involved which might include providing some creative work free of charge. As a small/medium sized creative agency, you need to weigh up whether this is effective use of time when, in reality, the company tends to already have a pretty good idea of which agency they are going to appoint.

Whilst the intention of the process is to reduce risk to the company and weed out agencies that may not meet a certain head count or turnover, points that may be valid when purchasing widgets, when appointing a creative firm this approach can result in throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Creative firms by their nature are very innovative and being small has its benefits in being able to change and flex quickly. In an era of economic down-turn and mobile technology, some have dispensed with the vanity and financial burden of having a high number of full-time staff but operate in a more flexible bespoke way. Whilst specialist retained knowledge is held within a firm with a lower head count, they retain a network of specialist freelance partners that they can bring together and deploy on projects as required. How does a PQQ/RFP accommodate such specialist firms with deep knowledge of a sector, adept at collaborating with clients and the ability to put a specialist team together for your projects?

As Blair Enns concludes “But now that everyone is beginning to acknowledge this RFP nonsense as bullshit, why don’t all parties just drop the pretence and negotiate in good faith instead?

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