Winning Your Next RFP
As much as we’re fans of Blair Enns’ excellent book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, the reality is that all companies who deliver creative solutions and are striving to grow will have to pitch to win business. This isn’t a knock on Blair’s premise, which if followed could well lead to pitching less, but based upon our experience of delivering hundreds of RFPs, coupled with today’s highly competitive and procurement-driven world, all creative agencies will find themselves in a competitive pitch situation.
As we all know, pitches are expensive and take up valuable resources. The amount of time and effort spent preparing your response can result in additional employee stress, long hours, or negatively affecting on-going client work. So, the decision to proceed is a critical first step, followed by having a consistent process that enables your team to stand out from the rest.
Here are key points to consider when the next RFP lands on your desk:
Prior to saying yes...
Stop before you start. Many agencies dive right in. The best agencies pause and think about the task at hand. Do you have the right experience and capabilities to answer the client’s stated need? Do you have enough time, enough money, and the right resources available to respond with your best work? If the answers are no, politely turn down the opportunity by explaining your situation (and it’s been our experience that many turn-downs become new business opportunities).
Relationships Matter. Although some success has been had by developing a relationship during the RFP process, it’s not optimum, creates greater risk and should be considered a yellow flag. You’re going to need access to, and information from, the client. You need to understand what problem your creative is supposed to solve. If you don’t know the buyer and aren’t allowed by procurement to contact them, you should consider politely turning down the opportunity and asking instead for an introductory meeting. The client response will tell you a lot about whether they’re really interested in working with a new agency.
The Competition. While Procurement often won’t tell you who’s bidding, you won’t know unless you ask. So ask. And if they do say “no,” your inside contact may provide the information, and it’s important to find out. You need to understand how you fit in the competitive landscape – look at websites and talk with your suppliers. What can you find out about the other bidders? How do you stack up? All of the time spent on your brand, on differentiation, process, structure, etc. comes into play as assets to use in telling your story. Without understanding the competition, you’re pitching with one arm tied behind your back.
Once you decide to proceed with responding to the RFP...
Create a pitch budget. Pitch costs are a highly variable cost that can kill agency profits. Every RFP response needs a pitch budget of approximately 5% of the value of the opportunity on the pitch. That percentage adjusts up or down based upon other factors (i.e. size of budget, potential of client, your differentiation). By the way, in our experience, a slick, expensive book doesn’t work any better than a really good idea that’s conveyed cleverly.
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 doesn’t mean anything goes, and you have to find out what box your client wants to get out of! 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.
Think ROI. Treat your client’s money like it’s your own money. Would you spend that much for that thing - whatever that thing is? Your goal is to avoid “elbows” in your budget - line items that stick out as unreasonable in relation to the value they're delivering.
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 something happens that gives everyone goosebumps. Nothing beats goosebumps.
Rehearse. Rehearse again. And then rehearse some more. “We know our parts” is engraved on the tombstones of failed pitch teams. This isn’t the time to fake it.
Got Tech? Understand the technology you have to work with - Zoom, Teams, Google, Skype or a projector with a PC connection that doesn't fit your Mac (and you did bring an adapter, right?).
Once in the room...or on Zoom
Rapport Matters. This refers to both internally and externally. Clients hire people they like, trust and want to work with. In the end, you aren’t just selling an idea, you’re selling each individual in that room. Accordingly, team dynamics are critical. The team should all be comfortable together. Each member should bring and add value.
Go short. You want dialog, not a monologue. They can’t get to know you if you’re racing through a PowerPoint deck. Allow time for questions (and welcome them at any point) and encourage feedback along the way. Your goal is to get the client to talk more than you do.
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. Consider sending a fun teaser that’s somehow paid off at the pitch. Additionally, send a follow-up, possibly based upon comments in the room. The more you pay attention to them, the more they’ll be interested in you.
And a note about video pitches: it's completely reasonable to request your clients have their cameras turned ON. You can't build rapport staring at black screens, and it's also about respect. But first we have to respect our work and efforts enough to make this a requirement.