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By Patrick Cavanaugh

Hell Hath No Fury Like R F P


Three letters of impending doom.

A glimmer of hope before shattered dreams.

Hell hath no fury like R F P.


In the Client Service industry, for those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, there is an all-too-common practice where-in a company sends out a Request For Proposal. Nominally, this document lays out all the information regarding a new campaign/initiative/etc. Instead, what gets delivered is a clusterfuck of meaningless jargon, absurd requirements and redundant detail.

“We are looking for a creative, innovative, super hip agency to build us an award-winning website. No, we don’t have any content or goals, or even a defined budget, necessarily, but it should look like Apple, work like Google and go viral like that Dollar Shave Guy. We expect 7 copies of your detailed proposal outlining a multi-year campaign with turn-key solutions, detailed timeline and the blood of your first-born child.”

Why does this happen? Call it too many cooks in the kitchen, call it excessive risk management, these documents are packed with page after page of copy-pasted drivel meant to cover their asses. How can a company possibly showcase 5 years experience in Responsive Design utilizing the latest in HTML5 coding, if those technologies haven’t been around that long? Why does a portfolio need to show 3 or more examples of the exact type of website they want built?

“Oh, you’re a master carpenter, but can you show me a black walnut wardrobe you’ve built? You can use a lathe, but can you use this auger?” It’s insulting.




While directories exist with lists of RFPs, don’t waste your time. Some companies maintain internal vendor lists, to which they send out the requests. Compared to the wide open, random submissions from the directories, this method provides a more targeted collection of responses. Targeted, not in the sense of a sniper, but more of a shotgun approach where the company is collecting vendors like candy, trying to get as many proposals on their desk as possible. Many won’t be read but the sheer stack will provide validation and a sense of largesse.

Similarly are Referrals, which in most cases are the preferable way you want your company approached. The best way to get new work, after all, is to do good work. And don’t be a jerk.Dont Be A Jerk

Following delivery of the RFP, there is normally a chance to submit questions and receive answers. Sometimes this takes the form of a pre-proposal conference where suits can get face time with the client, ask inane questions to sound legitimate, and you can clarify any missing information. These are rarely helpful.

Rarely are you given a budget. Mostly, they give you a vague idea of the project, and then compare bids. Which doesn’t make sense, as most proposals suggest different ideas that cost different amounts to execute. But hey, get that whiteboard out and draw some mind-maps! And no, you aren’t being paid for your ideas, that’s absurd!

You will have to decide to what extent your team will produce real content. Contrary to popular belief, design isn’t free, so the time you put into solid creative can be totally wasted, or worse, stolen, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. Some agencies have a policy of NO SPEC WORK. smarmy2Until the rest of the industry agrees to that concept, that proposal will lose to every client who says “Love your portfolio, thoughts and process, but what we really wanted to see was more creative that really WOWed us.”

When delivering the proposal, the best possible scenario is to present. A presentation. Actually meet the client, discuss your ideas in full and have them meet you. Because in working together, it’s important to actually know each other, right?!

But this won’t happen. You will deliver the proposal, in digital PDF format and seven copies in printed bound version, priority shipped. Your entire proposal is wrapped into your ability to create a compelling narrative and the client’s desire to actually read. Tip: illustrations, charts, graphs.

Pie Charts

Sometimes they are clear with a decision timeline, when call-backs are made, what next steps are, etc., but usually there is a vague review period and little communication. You can keep following up, but desperation is a sour cologne, and really, don’t you have work to do that is actually paying?

Maybe you get a call back, where you get to pitch your heart out to a group of very bored people who wouldn’t deign to actually read your proposal. Just sum it up, gloss over the details, and WOW them with more creative. But usually you just get nothing. No email, no phone call, just a tiny status update on some random date well past the original deadline. Sucker.

Remember: While there are all sorts of rules about equal opportunities, fair practices, etc., the reality of getting the bid still boils down to who you know, and in many cases, who you pay off. Sorry.




Want me to work for you? That’s cool. Pay me. Ideas are not free, my time is not yours to waste, and this ain’t a dog-and-pony show, it’s business. You see our website, you know our portfolio, ask for a reference if you need it and pay me to create a solution to your problem.

How much? Ask for a quote. We’ve got hourly rates and can estimate what it takes to build the basic platform upon which businesses grow. To extend and maintain that platform, pay me. A retainer means I’m there when you need me, and you are only billed for work completed. Best part is you get all the energy and great ideas that were being wasted on pitches and proposals!

The fact is, your basic RFP process is flawed, because the best companies are too busy to respond to every request that comes through the door. In the past, our refusal to do free spec work provided opportunity for suckers to get their foot in the door. Those willing to sacrifice the reality of now for the promise of the future. But these days, with extremely custom websites requiring expert skillsets in everything from code compilers to API integrations, and the industry changing at an ever-faster rate, the guys printing 8 bound copies of their 50 page proposals are getting left behind by the more agile shops pumping out great work.

Keep on the BRINK.


To contact the author with feedback, hatemail or, worse, an RFP, hit us up here.

By Patrick Cavanaugh