10 Tips for RFP Response Success

As much as we are fans of Blair Enns’ excellent book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, the reality is that all companies who deliver creative solutions to their clients, and who are striving to grow, will have to pitch to win business. This is not a knock on Blair’s premise, which if followed could well lead to pitching less but we believe, based upon our experience of delivering literally hundreds of RFP responses, coupled with the reality of today’s highly competitive and procurement-driven world, that at some point (and likely at many points) all creative agencies will find themselves in a competitive pitch situation.


However, as we all know, pitches are expensive and take up valuable resources. The amount of time and effort spent on preparing for a pitch can result in additional employee stress, long hours, or worse, such as negatively affecting on-going client work. So, the decision as to whether to proceed is a critical first step, and then the process to follow in responding to the pitch that will maximize the opportunity for success is equally important.


What follows are ten key points to consider when confronted with an RFP that we have found will help any agency maximize its opportunity for RFP success.


Prior to saying yes to the RFP...


1. Stop before you start. Many agencies just dive into a RFP response. The best agencies make sure they pause and think about the task at hand. A critical consideration is whether you are right for the job. Do you have the right experience and capabilities to answer the client’s stated need? If you answer yes, then consider: do you have enough time, enough money, and the right resources available to respond with your best work? If you don’t, then ask for more of what is lacking and if you can’t get it, politely turn down the opportunity by explaining your situation (and it’s been our experience that many turn-downs become new business opportunities).


2. Relationships Matter.  Someone in the agency absolutely must have a relationship with someone within the client organization. Although some success has been had by developing a relationship during the RFP process, it is certainly not optimum, creates greater risk and should definitely be considered a yellow flag. If the agency has zero relationships and is not allowed to contact the prospective client during the RFP process (i.e. because procurement won’t allow it), then it is a total red flag and you should politely turn down the opportunity and ask instead for an introductory meeting. The client response to this request will tell you a lot about whether they are really not interested in working with a new agency.


Once it is decided to proceed with responding to the RFP...


3. Create a pitch budget. Pitch costs can kill an agency’s profits. It is a highly variable cost that is often not scrutinized since winning a pitch at any cost is often the goal. However, that is not smart business. You should create a pitch budget and plan to spend (external costs) no more than approximately 5% of the value of the opportunity on the pitch. That percentage adjusts up or down based upon other factors (i.e. a very large opportunity may not require that large a percentage, but a small opportunity that has huge additional potential may require a greater percentage).  By the way, in our experience, a slick, expensive book, doesn’t work any better than a really good idea that is conveyed cleverly.


4. Listen, evaluate, adjust accordingly.  You must truly listen and understand what the client is asking for, but not be afraid to go outside the ask and give the client something special - a unique approach to tackle the challenge.  In all cases, you must ensure that you are responding to the client’s need (not your own agenda), and demonstrate that you are listening carefully, but aren’t afraid to push back thoughtfully with strategic thinking and good rational ideas. The client is paying for expertise, not simply an agency that says “yes.”


5. Be realistic. Anyone can pitch a spaceship to the moon, but no agency can build it, and no client can afford it. Out of the box thinking does not mean anything goes. Your idea needs to be grounded in solid tactics that have been vetted prior to entering the pitch room. Your budget should be realistic to the tactics. Remember, if you can’t build it, no one will come.


6. Think ROI. Treat your client’s money like it’s your own money. Think: would you spend that much for that thing - whatever that thing is. Everyone talks ROI, but look at your idea in relation to your budget. Does it make sense to you (or someone else who is objective)? Your goal is to avoid “elbows” in your budget - line items that stick out as unreasonable in relation to what they are delivering. It should all be rational, clear and concise.


7. Create a “goosebump” moment. Every pitch needs to be a well-told story. And every story needs drama, an arc that includes a climatic point. There should be a moment when everyone in the room is transfixed and inspired, with all eyes on the presenter… and then something happens that gives everyone goosebumps. Nothing beats goosebumps. Even if it isn’t a killer idea (or more likely, the client sees holes in the idea), goosebumps gives you a better than even chance of winning.


Once in the room...


8. Rapport Matters.  This refers both internally and externally.  Clients hire people they like and want to work with.  The pitch should demonstrate real team chemistry and excitement.  In the end, you aren’t just selling an idea, you are selling each individual in that room. Accordingly, the team dynamics are critical. The team should all be comfortable together. Each member should bring and add value.  They should have fun with each other and with the client. They should demonstrate that they are interested in the client’s business, are excited to do the work, and would be fun to work with.


9. Go short. You want dialog in the room not a monologue. They can’t get to know your personality if you are racing through a PowerPoint deck. You need to allow time for questions (and welcome them at any point in the presentation) and encourage feedback along the way. Your goal is to get the client to talk more than you do.


10. Have fun before, during and after the pitch. Fun is key in a successful pitch, and it shouldn’t just happen in the room - it should happen before and after the pitch. You should demonstrate to the client that you are focused on them even before the pitch. Consider sending a teaser that is somehow paid off at the pitch. Or something that demonstrates an understanding of their business issues or needs. Additionally, send a follow-up, possibly based upon comments in the room. The more you pay attention to them, the more they will be interested in you.



By Bill Boris-Schacter & Lindsay Grinstead


Bill and Lindsay are co-founding partners of Tonic Consulting Group, LLC, which delivers marketing, sales and operations consulting services to creative agencies and organizations that are looking to grow. Prior to opening Tonic, Bill was EVP of Operations and Lindsay was SVP,  Sr. Account Director, at Jack Morton Worldwide, a brand experience agency.



© 2016 Tonic Consulting Group. All rights reserved. 

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