How to write a killer RFP

By: Denise Zimmerman

Request for proposal (RFP): The mere phrase makes some cringe. And while we all have somewhat different perspectives, there is some universality in the RFP experience that we share. And I regret to report that overall, it is not very good.

A general consensus among folks that I reached out to is that the RFP process is broken and does not align with the dynamics of our industry. It is an antiquated mechanism that supports laziness and suboptimal results.

However, very few have a solution or a fix. But there are a number of factors that we can agree on that make for either bad or good practices. And rather than just kvetch and complain, here are some guiding points to make things better.

– Set the RFP goals

The very first and most essential step in developing a successful RFP effort is to define your goals. What is the purpose of the process? What are you looking to achieve? This will not only help you focus on your requirements, needs, and objectives, but will also drive the nature, form, and content of your RFP to help facilitate a successful outcome.

Not taking this first critical step can lead to a lack of good direction and information for responders. In order to evaluate an agency and get the most effective responses, you must know your own needs, establish criteria, and share relevant information. This is especially true in a transmedia world where the options are myriad — the best ideas and solutions cannot be determined without a certain level of insight. This happens due to a number of potential variables such as laziness, lack of expertise, or — in some cases — a misguided notion that leaving agencies in the dark will reap the best ideas, rates, and proposals. This is a huge fallacy and will not produce the best outcome for anyone. 

Responders will be evaluating the RFP as well. They will be assessing whether they can succeed not only in terms of their services and the fit, but also if the RFP equips them with the ability to respond effectively to demonstrate their capabilities. If your RFP does not provide the forum to do so, you can lose out on highly qualified candidates. How can you possibly evaluate if a responder can meet your needs if you don’t tell them what they are and give them relevant insight into your business? 

Effective RFPs typically reflect the strategy, short- and long-term business objectives, and outline requirements, while providing detailed insight so responders can offer matching perspectives. This also includes a budget, or at least some level of budget parameters.

To a responder, an RFP that does not include a budget indicates that you are not prepared to invest in the effort, not experienced enough to effectively evaluate the responses, or the budget is not there and you are fishing. If you cannot provide some budget guidance — along with outlining your objectives and how you are going to measure success — then you will never come to a clear, optimal decision regarding a solid partner for your business. Furthermore, if a respondent is working with a budget, they can more effectively align their ideas and solutions to your objectives to maximize your budget. Don’t you want a partner who can do that?

As to the structure of the RFP, that depends greatly on your needs. Things like scoring, closed versus open questions, presentations, and so forth will flow from your criteria, goals, requirements, and purpose. But the investment upfront to determine this is essential. Some of the better RFPs break down questions into sections and give a weighting to each section. This requires some real thinking into requirements.

If you don’t know what you are looking for, what you need, what your criteria are for good partners or resources, and you are not prepared to invest a level of time, thought, and resources into the effort, then you are not ready to put out an RFP.

– Plan and proceed with respect

There are some horrific stories about the lack of respect for the time, effort, and cost involved to respond to an RFP. And this is not sour grapes, nor is it new or unique to the digital industry. In some ways, the complicated, fragmented media market as well as the economy have added additional pressure and stress to make the dynamics here even worse. Responding to RFPs is an investment of time and resources. Depending on the nature of the RFP, it can cost an agency thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard and soft costs to respond. If you are issuing an RFP, you must respect that. 

You can demonstrate that respect in a number of ways beginning with balancing your “skin in the game.” A good, effective RFP and process requires a significant amount of time and commitment to develop and manage. More often than not there is an imbalance where the burden falls more on the responder. So, while the position of power is clearly on the buyer side, not investing the appropriate amount of time upfront and during the process communicates a lack of respect not only to the responder, but also for the needs of your own business.

Along the same lines, you should respect how much time it takes to respond with intelligent, creative solutions. There have been RFPs where we were asked to respond to dynamic challenges in four days.

And while it is rare, there are times where a responder receives a stipend for their time and effort in responding to an RFP. This happened at Netplus once. And while we didn’t win the business, this gesture demonstrated a respect for the value, time, and resources we brought to the effort. It also reflected that this was an effort that was important to the company and that they were willing to invest themselves as well.

If you expect responders to bend over backwards to earn your business, you should bend over backwards to get the best outcome for your business.

An effective RFP must come from a place of mutual respect for a successful outcome.

– Work more closely with procurement

More and more procurement is involved in the RFP process. Ok, almost all the time. It can be of varying degrees, but more often than not they are not equipped to evaluate agencies. Somehow, someway, we must find the means to partner more with procurement — their needs reflect the needs of the business as well. Their goals and your needs should be aligned and integrated to serve the overall business objectives. And there may be some necessary education as to the nature of your specific needs to help empower them to be more effective to help you determine the right resource.

While the guiding points above are some things that you can do to help improve the RFP process, there are some industry movements afoot as well. Brian Morrisey recently wrote about a number of current efforts on the media side of the business looking to re-align the RFP practice. According to Morrisey, “Nextmark wants to turn it on its head. The idea behind its ‘request for consideration’ is rather than sending out RFPs to dozens of publishers, media planners would simply post the specifics of the campaign (budget, campaign dates, target audience) to a site that would match it to likely publisher candidates.” What was particularly interesting was that Morrisey noted that Nextmark is looking to balance the burden a bit and is planning to charge publishers from $50 to $75 to submit proposals.

So, while there might be heightened awareness of the problems, the solutions are not readily apparent or directionally agreed upon. What is clear is that there are things we can do as individuals and organizations to improve the overall experience and outcome. What have you done to help effect a successful RFP? Are you ready to make a positive difference? 



About Amr Badran

An Egyptian Business Consultant and Corporate Trainer since 1997. I've trained on Management, Leadership and Soft Skills to thousands of people from many nationalities, backgrounds and professions in more than 10 countries across the Middle and Far East. I've also provided my consultancy service for issues of Strategic Planning, Marketing, Sales and Capacity Building. Holder of an MBA and a Candidate for Doctorate in Business. Find more about my Management and Personal Skills Courses at and feel free contacting me at
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