The seven deadly sins of the request for proposal process

Ron Fierman

As an industry vet, I've witnessed a number of changes on the agency side that have improved the way we service our clients. One glaring aspect that has grown more difficult, however, is the request for proposal (RFP) process – and it’s especially bad for digital agencies and website development assignments.

I believe that both clients and agencies have a vested interest in improving that process, and it will take an effort on both sides to be able to do that in a meaningful way.

To make my case and appeal to agencies and clients alike, I’ve outlined below the 'seven deadly sins' of RFPs and ways to avoid them:

1. Pricing – or lack thereof

One of the most limiting aspects of the current RFP model – and the one that presents the greatest business challenge for an agency – is pricing.

In a perfect world for web developers, a price or desired range would always accompany an RFP. The investment of our time in completing an RFP can be measured in dozens of hours. There’s no greater frustration than finding out that the budget or winning bid was a fraction of what we had proposed. In those cases, there was clearly a disconnect of assumptions and scale that could have been avoided with better communication.

The complicated process of pricing and determining an estimate for a client, as well as the importance of improving that process, can be summed up in a simple analogy: enlisting an architect to build your house. If you can’t answer how much you’re willing to spend and aren't willing to set a budget, you're setting your architect up to fail. If he makes a conservative quote, you may never know the full range of options available to you; and if he quotes too high, he risks scaring you away.

Instead of focusing on a number, we should focus on asking questions that help us and our clients determine the purpose and priorities of the RFP, allowing us to discuss options and price levels more comfortably. Whereas an architect may ask who will be living in the house, how many rooms it will need, how many bedrooms, etc, the RFP should provide the same level of specificity and detail.

2. Cut and Paste RFPs; you get what you give

Clients need to understand that the quality of the RFP they send dictates the quality of the response they’ll receive. We need to ask ourselves: what makes a good RFP, and what makes a bad one?

Because we have yet to uniform the process or communicate to clients what type of RFP would help us best serve them, they come to us with endless variations – everything from well-written documents detailing the clients' specific needs to requests with little detail to no document at all. Sometimes, an RFP will come laced with a laundry list of 25 items the client wants to address with no indication of priority or preference, leaving us vulnerable to our best guess.

So, let’s review the questions that digital agencies need answered to respond well to RFPs:

  • What are your goals for the project?
  • What should we know about the history of your organization and your current website in particular?
  • How has your organization changed since the last redesign of your site?
  • Do you have a clear branding and messaging platform that should be used? If not, do you have a budget to develop those separately?
  • What functionality from your existing site would you like to leave intact? What new functionality may be desired?
  • How many points of integration do you anticipate?
  • How will migration of existing content be handled? How much content - and what specifically - needs to be migrated?
  • What is the level of technological resources available within your organization?
  • Are there technology platforms that are off limits or any that you’d like to pursue?

3. Format: thinking “inside” the box

As a former CFO, I love Excel spreadsheets. But not for an RFP response. Nothing stifles creativity as much as cramming answers into little response boxes of a predetermined size.

Additionally, many RFPs we receive read like engineering or legal documents – they’re drafted by procurement and sometimes lack the insights of the very teams in need of service. While these types of documents may make life easier for procurement, they’re a detriment to the craft of writing and presentation that are in no small part integral to the skill sets one is looking for in a creative partner. This can be a missed opportunity for us to showcase our abilities to potential clients.

4. Group Q&As

Think co-ed showers. Sounds interesting…but awkward!

Nothing makes it more difficult to create chemistry with a potential new client or demonstrate our value than a group conference call of eight-20 competing participants trying to ask insightful questions without giving an edge to the others.

5. More is not better

Count your toes and subtract two. That is the maximum number of firms to invite to join a RFP process. Any more than that is a red flag that no one did any homework in searching for the right firm for the project – and that can be a real discouragement to the agencies involved.

6. They’re just not that into you

Let’s avoid the dating game. We understand that this process can take a significant – and undetermined – amount of time, but please don’t make us call weekly to beg for updates. Keep us in the loop, even if it’s only to say “no updates yet” – we don’t want to become the needy boyfriend/girlfriend!

7. It’s about the people, people!

As much as this process is about experience, pricing, ideas and creativity, it’s also about forging relationships that bring energy and innovation to a project. If the RFP process allows no opportunity to assess the human side of things, then it is doomed to be less productive with corresponding results.

Our industry was built on relationships, and they remain an important part of our business. Though we as agencies may often find ourselves at the mercy of a procurement process that’s better suited for purchases of equipment than creative services, procurement is a necessary process for organizations and isn’t going anywhere.

Therefore, it’s important to make the most of it and find a way to establish a relationship beyond an exchange of emails and documents, because humanness in the procurement process is necessary to providing both a better RFP and a more creative response to it.


Recently we were approached by a leading university for a pre-RFP meeting. The client is actually taking the time before sending the RFP to a list of agencies to meet and truly pre-qualify the candidates for the project. This is a first for us, after receiving hundreds of RFPs over the years. As a result, they received great insight into what needs to be included in their RFP – and for us, it was both a chance to bring more transparency to the RFP, and allowed us to shape our response more accurately.

Yes it was an investment in time for the client, but just think about the added value they received as they read the responses from those firms they believe have the people and talents to deliver on their important assignment.

Never say never.

Ron Fierman is the president of Digital Pulp. He tweets @ron61850.

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