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Joe Olsen on Why Agencies Should Just Say No to RFPs 6 months ago

This is a reprint of a blog our CEO and Co-Founder Joe Olsen released earlier this week on his personal blog and via Linkedin. Joe also co-founded and ran Phenomblue, a successful agency for over 13 years, and today runs Birdsnest, of course. To read the original post or take part in the conversation, read it here.

Next time you get an RFP, just say no. Well don’t say no, but say not like this. Most RFPs are written with a symptom in mind and not a comprehensive desired outcome. That means that even if you are successful winning the RFP and delivering the work, the likelihood you solve any real business problem is pretty small. Translation — insignificant transformational impact. In the highly competitive marketplace for agencies, it’s not good enough to just deliver what was asked for anymore.

You need to be able to articulate the client’s challenge, how it laddered up to their business challenge, how you successfully positioned a solution and executed and ultimately why you were the firm that was the strategic right choice for the client.

Having these desired outcomes in mind for the agency will help you ensure that you’re doing the right work that will help you grow your organization.

When I ran Phenomblue, we always said no. Our position was that without a better understanding of the strategic business challenge and how creating and executing a solution was going to achieve success, neither the client nor our agency was going to be successful. We would politely decline, then offer to help the client through the process of success definition and alignment to tactics and initiatives that were necessary to achieve success. Then once that was complete, we would help them write the RFP in a way that would ensure the highest likelihood of a successful RFP process and ultimately success for the organization. I’ll let you guess how many RFPs we actually re-wrote and how many times we were hired before we got that far.

Sure…we lost a few prospects but we won much more than we lost. No one can deny the trend that clients of all shapes and sizes are demanding more strategic business attribution from their agencies and this was a way we capitalized on the front end to ensure we were in alignment with a potential relationship that was in alignment with our growth objectives from the start. These are the relationships we knew we could dig into, grow and prove the integrity of our decision making along the way.

These were the accounts that made our clients happy, our team happy and created stories worth sharing.

Clients that are unwilling to define strategic KPIs, align tactical initiatives and track to success are going to be extremely difficult to turn into growth opportunities for agencies. Success is going to be subjective. They are not going to create objective compelling case studies that are translatable to future prospects. You’ll spin your wheels, have numerous false starts and eat a ton of cost along the way. And most importantly, these clients are not going to create fertile landscapes for your teams to create substantive strategic creative solutions that keep them engaged and excited about enough to deliver their best work on.

In 15 years working in this business, I can’t count a number of times I have talked to agencies about their award-winning creative and when I ask about the business impact of their work I get: blank stares and smirks— or I’m fed a long list of insignificant buzz words that sound like something out of Michael Scott’s playbook. Interactions, likes, views, impressions, conversion rates and social buzz are not strategic KPIs. Without strategic business attribution, these baseline tactical references are farts in the wind.

Data is about integrity and weighed and measured as such. Are you defining data points that move the business forward? Are you tracking toward them in a way that’s easily communicated in the context of your client’s business objectives? Lastly, are you utilizing that data on an ongoing basis to turn client relationship management into strategic relationship growth?

Every growing agency that aims for continued relevance needs to be able to say yes.

So next time you’re asked to participate in the perpetuation of the unaccountable system that fuels our industry of the past, say no, not like this and offer to do the legwork. You’ll be amazed at your ability to create the opportunity for real work that solves real problems. You’ll take a step forward into the modern age of integrity-driven marketing and most importantly your agency’s CV will start making sense to rest of the C-Suite.

Recommended Reading & Next Steps

This is a reprint of a blog our Founder and CEO Joe Olsen released earlier this week on his personal blog and via Linkedin. To read the original post or take part in the conversation, read it here.

For agencies, saying no to RFPs is just one method to earning a seat with the C-Suite – demonstrating your value as a strategic partner across your client’s organizations. As clients shift away from project one-offs, in search of partners to deliver on consistent and correlated project streams, how are you establishing long-term value and attributing execution to business outcomes that move the needle? Download our free ebook, The Agency’s Guide to Earning a Seat with the C-Suite, to find out how.