Secret Tips of responding to RFIs & RFPs

Secret Tips of responding to RFIs & RFPs

Before I kick off with some of the tips and secrets of how I have been responding to Request for Information (RFI) and Request for Proposals (RFP)  I’d like to start with my definition of both, so we can all start on the ‘same page’.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and Requests for Information (RFI) are an integral part of Ad Agency selection, of big-ticket sales e.g. global marketing/advertising campaigns, and launching a new digital, PR, 1:1, integrated campaign generally. However, both RFIs & RFPs are frequently requested in the Advertising Industry, they are:

  1. A request for proposal (RFP) is a document that solicits a proposal, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, service, campaign or valuable asset, to potential Ad Agencies/suppliers to submit business proposals. e.g Questions about the Agency/Firm, Staffing, turnover, differentiation between competitors, technology platform expertise, Awards/Accolades, Team Members, Financial Condition, Research, Invoicing, SEO, Technology Capabilities, Measurement, etc.
  2. Responding to an RFI is a great opportunity to influence the content, the methodologies, and the expectations of the coming RFP. Writing an RFI response is the most flexible way to demonstrate Ad Agency’s compelling values and unique capabilities.

That doesn’t mean they are well liked by Ad Agencies, sales departments or marketing teams however. An RFP/RFI represents a major investment in time and effort on the part of the responding organization and all too often comes to nothing in the end. (But, that’s another story I will write about later.)

However, if you receive a RFI or RFP it is critical to carefully review it immediately. Then, determine if it is a good opportunity for your agency or not. Regardless of your decision to engage or not, respond promptly to the prospective client or search consultant with an indication of your intent. That’s just professional and best practice.

All marketers and their agencies today are looking for high-performance relationships based on mutual trust. RFIs & RFPs are part of that process. Steps that can help marketers and agencies reach that productive state have been outlined from time to time. However, there has not been recent comprehensive guidance on agency search that recognizes the rapidly changing agency-advertiser marketplace.

Here is an example of the basic questions and background most Clients are looking to obtain during the RFI or RFP process.

Example only: Table of Contents usually requested in an RFP

  1. RFP Objective – I have often seen clients trying to better understand elements like: Agency Mission Statements, Philosophy to success, Location, Number of Employees, Ownership Structure, Number of Offices Nationally/Globally, International Capabilities, Strategic Approach, The Role of Account Planning, Creative, Interactive and Direct Marketing, Engineering/QA, Media, SEO, Social Media and Web Analytics, Leadership, Staffing, Turnover Rate, Training, What competencies are vital, Collaboration, SLA’s, Clients, Billings, Compensation, Retainer Estimating and Billings, Rate Chart, References and more.
  2. Target Markets
  3. Key Project Deliverables/Time Considerations
  4. RFP Criteria e.g. experience, testing, creative development, competencies, global/international, research, references, etc.
  • RFP Process and Timeline e.g. Generally, 4-6 agencies will be asked to provide a RFP response. They will have 8-10 days to respond and indicate interest.
  • Agency Fees e.g. an itemized pricing structure for the products and services the Agency will provide
  • Miscellaneous e.g. Confidentiality, Disclaimers, etc.

Traditionally, many clients expect Ad Agencies to respond to RFI’s and RFP’s for free. I have found they generally add a note on every initial proposal that might also flag a notification like:

You are also advised that XYZ Company will not reimburse your firm for any proposal preparation costs or other work performed in connection with the RFP, whether or not your firm is awarded a contract. ‘

But, with the intensive costs of man-hours, creative development, production, interactive costs, etc. – there has been a far bigger ongoing discussion on the topic of remuneration and costs associated with pitching today.

Years ago, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) outlined steps to help marketers and agencies go through an effective search and selection process to help both parties create a better working relationship.

The outline was intended to highlight the management team, staff, qualifications, services offered, compensation and many other metrics.

The ANA recognized that the most frequent searches 4As are for include the following types of agency relationships:

  • Agency of Record (AOR) Search – An AOR usually sets the strategic and communications direction for a brand (i.e., ongoing retainer-based relationships).
  • Roster Agency Search – Could involve a review for a specific assignment or might entail a qualified vendor status review with no specific assignment as part of the roster review. A roster agency is one that has met the criteria to be considered for a client’s brands but may not yet have been awarded a brand assignment.
  • Specialty Agency Search – These are agencies that have a specific expertise (e.g., mobile, event marketing, digital, social, media planning and/or buying, CRM, or collateral). These agencies often supplement an AOR or an existing roster.
  • International Agency Search – This is usually for an AOR to handle a brand globally or in multiple markets around the world. This is usually done to identify a lead office in a core market that will then coordinate efforts with other offices around the world.
  • Ad-hoc/Tactical Agency Searches – Typically smaller to mid-sized agencies used for more routine, turnkey work at a lower cost with a shorter turnaround time. These agencies can complement other agencies on the roster and free up core agencies to do more strategic work.
  • Project Reviews – Client searches for an agency to perform a specific, one-time deliverable.

However, from an Ad Agency perspective, when you receive an RFP/RFI the first question is: Do we want to respond to this? 

I’ve found, most of the time the answer is ‘NO’. Especially, if your agency has a highly targeted list of great potential clients and brands that share similar values, expertise in a defined niche and have great existing chemistry with.

Importantly, an RFP/RFI represents a major time and effort investment for any Advertising Agency (local or Multinational in scale). If you seriously don’t believe you have a good shot at winning the contract, I believe you’re better off not responding or passing with grace and style promptly.

Over decades of pitching and responding to both, you must remember that sometimes, you’ll have slim to no chance of ‘winning’. That’s why, it’s critical to understand the relationships, budgets, needs and time requirements, as fast and early as possible.

The RFP/RFI may also be the product of internal ‘politics’ or a new CEO or CMO has been newly appointed and then, often, the company already has a winner picked out. Heads Up! In many recent cases, the entire process is a facade when the winning entry determined in advance of issuing the document.

Such situations are frustrating and time-wasting but, again, a fact of life. Always remember, look before you leap! And, make sure you discuss and plan all cost/staff requirements to respond and win, as this work could impact on existing clients.

Every Ad Agency that wants to win more RFIs & RFPs MUST start refining their responses yesterday! By that I mean, anyone who has been in the new business, growth and agency management sphere for more than a decade knows that they must craft a perfectly structured positioning statement. They must also have an up-to-date overview of their agency and ensure it is constantly updated and enhanced monthly with new wins, awards, hires and successful case studies.

Over the years, I have witnessed the RFP process is typically has many potential pitfalls along the way. Here’s how to identify, and more importantly, avoid them:

  • Always highlight your Agencies strengths and try to minimize your weakness. DO NOT talk about your competitors, remember it’s all about you.
  • Always differentiate your agency and positioning. From the beginning, put a clear and meaningful stake in the ground about what differentiates your agency. The differentiator does not necessarily have to relate to capabilities. It could be culture, process, or a ‘secret sauce.’
  • Talk in the ‘customer’s voice’ and intersperse that company’s logo and images throughout the presentation, so the client knows you understand their brand or business. This way you look like you put customized work into your response and tailored it just for them.
  • I recommend a ‘Bundling price’ where you can. The more details you provide in your pricing proposal, the more specific the line items that the customer can try to negotiate down.

As an example, if you have previously negotiated a ‘discount’ with a platform technology vendor, don’t detail pricing for all your various features and functionality in isolation, line by line. Instead, aggregate pricing for the platform as a whole.

  • Leverage back channels and relationships. As you can get potentially disqualified from the RFP for approaching clients directly without approval or permission. I suggest gain an ‘unfair advantage’ by enhancing your intelligence during the RFP by, developing and using ‘friendly people’ that you may know to give you a more competitive advantage.

I have often discovered after a pitch that competitors had associates ‘sniffing around’ and ‘digging up’ inside information that turned out to be the game-changer. If you can find a common-connection you trust and who is discreet, this can be your ‘closer’!

  • Make sure you find out about RFPs in the first place. You can’t close sales if you’re not aware of the RFPs in the first place. So, you need to identify all prospective customers in your space, and make sure you are on their radar; ask to be included in their RFP requests. Many times, bigger companies and Ad Agencies will engage third-party RFP management companies to run the process for them. Discover who those third-party companies active in your industry are and make sure you get on their radar, as well.
  • Pareto’s Law is critical in RFI’s and PFP’s. This means that 80% of every RFP is basically a known topic/subject or area. When the RFP comes in, you have 80% of the ‘standard materials’ all ready to go and can focus on the 20% that needs to be customized for that particular proposal. The better prepared you are, the less of a distraction RFP’s will be for any and all Ad Agencies. This knowledge will also dramatically reduce ‘freelance’ costs too!
  • Don’t quote your lowest price. Always leave the customer room for a ‘win.’ And that win typically means letting the procurement department look smart by having its members negotiate further price savings from the original quote.

So, let’s say your Agency normally likes to price your services/business with a 30 percent gross margin. Instead, put a quote into your RFP with 40 percent, knowing that procurement will be expecting at least a 10 percent haircut from there during the process.

  • Always strategically leverage the Q&A process. Remember when in the Q&A section of the session or process, make life miserable for your competitors AND, protect yourself and Agency.

Too often, over the years I have seen where the questions themselves, or the answers there of, have educated your competitor as to how exactly you do your work – a distinct advantage that you must keep secret.

But, on the flip side, if you know you are demonstrably better than your competitors in certain areas the customer desires, ask questions that you already have answers to and you will far better position yourself to that of competitors. This is really a fine line to walk: you want to show off your strengths, but NOT all your strengths, which might give your competitors intelligence.

If you are going to commit the time, costs and effort to respond to an (RFP) in 2018 and beyond – always ensure your teams have the chemistry and specifically the precision, knowledge and expertise to convince the ‘owners’ and team leaders of the brand or company prior to the response.

Make sure you nail the following:

  • Understand all the services that are needed/required
  • The problem that’s to be solved/fixed
  • Establish and acknowledge all the client priorities
  • Define the scope required e.g. resources, ideas, budgets, culture, services, etc.
  • Be real. Do not create idealistic scenarioswith improbable solutions and methodologies, prepare real solutions, real team members, and provide specific solutions, etc.
  • Highlight your strengths and try to minimize your weakness. NEVER talk about your competitors, remember it’s all about you.

If you have the chemistry, virtues and culture that is best suited to enable their growth, results and success, then you can make it happen!

Conclusion: Over the years I have been involved with thousands of negotiations, business deals and requests for RFIs and RFPs; the common element in all of these activities has been ‘strong negotiating skills’. They are often the single most crucial factor in closing a good deal vs. an amazing deal, or not closing any deal!

Negotiation is more often an art, than a science, as it involves creatively ‘reading’ your audience, and knowing when to dig in, and when not to.  I hope this article has provided you with some high-level guidance on how to negotiate the best deal in your next RFI or RFP.


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Super Strategist for the Fortune 500 –  Geoff is a leading international expert on new business development, brand marketing, innovation, and growth. He has also directly assisted hundreds of Fortune 500 brands and clients generate billions in new business revenue from North America to Asia to Europe, South America and Australia/Oceania.

Geoff has successfully built businesses, agencies, opened offices worldwide, saved companies and helped clientsgenerate billions of dollars of revenue and growth with their brands. 

Geoff is passionate about the art of influence, new business and presentation. His techniques can help you communicate and lead more effectively. As a global marketer, coach and workshop leader, Geoff makes mastering these advanced skills an enjoyable and achievable process. His sound business acumen and results driven approach have made him a trusted business advisor to many of the world’s leading organizations and their senior executives.

Geoff works with business leaders to ignite their courage and confidence so they can step up and step out in the way they engage people and communicate their leadership style. He is in high demand with CEO’s, CMO’s, directors, corporate executives and senior managers for his expert counsel and guidance in creating strategies for face-to-face communications and integrated global campaigns that are engaging and delivered with confidence and passion to key stakeholders.

Want to win more new business, grow faster and increase your revenue? Then get chemistry on your side. For more information, contact Geoff De Weaver at or DM me on Twitter at: or call me at: +61 411 224 961



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