It’s time for the traditional RFP to R.I.P.

Making room for a smarter way to pitch

In 2015, we launched our #SayNoToSpec video and were blown away by the incredible response from virtually every corner of our industry. It turns out many clients and agencies felt the same as we did about the spec creative requirement in new business pitches. A column our founder wrote entitled “Time for Us All to Ditch Spec Creative” also sparked further attention and debate at the time.

We think the industry is better for the dialogue and we want to keep the conversation going.

But we want to now extend the conversation to the entire pitch process and how it can be better for both agency and client. While we hope our World’s Worst RFP video made you laugh, everything in it is based on some pitch truth we have seen since we launched the agency in 2008. We believe our industry can do better for clients and agencies.

Below, we’ve created a list of ways we think that clients, agencies and, yes, even consultants, can improve the pitch process. But this is just the start. So please share your tips, advice and comments using #smarterpitch, as we hope this will be a living and ever-evolving how-to guide for our entire industry.


We Are All Human

Automation is the buzzword of the industry right now. And while it enables marketers to harness and make sense of data, nothing makes a great agency think twice about responding to a pitch than a solicitation that starts: “To whom it may concern.” Agencies are not made up of robots, and neither are the clients they work for. The best client-agency relationships thrive on human interaction and collaboration, not email missives between machines.

Bottom line for the client:

Personalize your invitation to the agency. Pick up the phone and call them. Or send a personalized email. That will go a long way in attracting great agencies. Just don’t let a robot do a human being’s job.

Bottom line for the agency:

You can decide to respond to a robot. Or not. (We don’t.) But remember this industry is all about human connection.


Know the End Game

There are many reasons to run a pitch. You need social media expertise. Stronger strategic talent. An agency with in-house production capabilities. Or maybe a shop of a certain size. Once you identify the “why” behind doing the pitch, you can figure out the type of agencies you want to invite. As agencies, we also need to identify our strengths and see if they align with what the client needs.

Bottom line for the client:

Articulate what it is that you’re looking for in the relationship – be it digital chops, a particular size of shop, or stronger account service.

Bottom line for the agency:

Find out what it’s really going to take to win. For example, if they are looking for a large agency with multiple offices to service their business and you’re a small shop in one city, ask yourself if you really have a shot.


Skip the Cattle Call

In the World’s Worst RFP, we hear the client started the pitch with 25 shops – a number not so outlandish in our industry. But agencies aren’t cattle. When a client invites everyone and their kitchen sink to a pitch, it’s a clear signal to us that they have no idea what they want from a potential partner. Not to mention, cattle calls set everyone – including the client – up for a needlessly laborious, drawn-out and expensive process.

Bottom line for the client:

It takes some work up front, but do your homework on the shops you want to invite. Get help from a reputable agency search consultant who can cull the field based on your needs. (See more on that, below.) Get a sense of fit based on agencies’ responses to your invitation and a short phone conversation with each. Keep your initial list to no more than five to six agencies and two to three for the shortlist.

Bottom line for the agency:

Point-blank, ask how many agencies are participating in the pitch. If you need more than two hands to count ’em, that’s a red flag. Next, ask how many agencies are expected to be shortlisted. Anything more than three is, by definition, not short; red flags should be popping up like crazy.


Hire an Expert

Running a pitch is a big and important undertaking. It is time-consuming and costly, especially if it leads to a mismatch between the “winning” agency and client. Clients can mitigate the risk of a wrong hire by using a search consultant but, like most things in life, there are good ones and bad ones. If you know who the good ones are, they can bring valuable industry knowledge and be a great matchmaker because they have their finger on the pulse of the agency landscape.

Bottom line for the client:

A good search consultant keeps up on our dynamic industry and all the different players. Before hiring one, ask around, check their references and track record, and find out if their approach to the pitch process works for you.

Bottom line for the agency:

Be visible in the industry so you get on the pitch radar. And before you engage in a pitch process that involves a search consultant, know who they are, their credentials and, most importantly, their industry reputation.


Look for a Relationship, Not a Transaction

In hiring an agency, a client should be looking for a business partner, not a transaction. That is why we suggest clients never ask for – and agencies should never give – an estimate via email. This leads to a price-driven, short-term relationship, which typically fails to generate strong work. After all, how accurate can an agency estimate be without a proper conversation with the client about the scope of the project? Same goes for RFPs for pro-bono services. Instead of a running a pitch for a free project, why not pick an agency you admire, and simply approach them to see if they’re interested in your cause. Once agencies are excited about a potential partnership, they will be motivated to find a way to make your budget work.

Bottom line for the client:

Firing off correspondence to agencies with a “request for estimate” is bad form. You’ll get agencies who compete on price, rather than the value they can bring to your organization.

Bottom line for the agency:

You don’t want to make price the main reason a client hires you. The only thing you’ll end up winning is a race to the bottom.


Understand the Full Process

The fictional client in the World’s Worst RFP set up an agency selection process where the end decision came as a complete surprise to the winner. They had actually only won the right to be part of a pool of agencies pitching on work! (Yes, we’ve seen this happen too.) Now, we understand that some government organizations run pitches whereby a pool of agencies is selected, but everyone participating knows in advance.

A smart, well-run pitch process is transparent and has been thought through from start to finish – with clear steps and clearly stated rules of engagement. How can you participate in something without knowing the ground rules?

Bottom line for the client:

Take the time to map out the process and expectations of participating agencies at each step. Your participating agencies should know what will happen, when it will happen and when a final decision will be made. Ensure your process doesn’t keep delaying a decision to a later date or is unclear whether there will be creative or strategic spec work or not. If you keep springing new pitch requirements at the last minute, agencies will pull out of the process and it won’t do much for your brand’s reputation. Oh, and we suggest you don’t run a pitch over the Christmas holidays. That won’t reflect well on how your organization values its own people or its partners.

Bottom line for the agency:

Know everything about the process before you commit to the pitch – from the initial first meeting with the client to what will be expected should your agency be shortlisted. Make sure you clearly understand timelines and who the decision-makers are in the process.



The World’s Worst RFP reveals four rounds of spec creative over six gruelling months with two shops left standing. Again, not far from the truth in many pitches today. But despite its prevalence, spec work is a costly, fabricated process that doesn’t involve client input and results in creative that isn’t really a true reflection of the way the client and agency would work together. Not to mention, it’s likely freelancers doing the spec work rather than the full-timers who would actually end up on your business. Hiring an agency based on spec creative, rather than who would be the best long-term partner, often means clients end up repeating the process a few years later, hoping this time the relationship lasts longer.

Bottom line for the client:

By asking for spec creative, it turns the search into a beauty contest. Ultimately, that leads to a relationship that only goes skin deep. If you really want to see creative work, give an agency you admire a real live project, collaborate with them in the creative development process and compensate them as though they were already your partner. See how you would work together in the real world.

Bottom line for the agency:

Spec creative is an expensive cycle of diverting resources from existing clients to chase new business opportunities. It’s time to #SayNoToSpec and let the amazing clients that hired you have your agency’s full attention.


Level the Playing Field

What happens when an agency presents spec creative in a pitch that doesn’t ask for it? As the client, you might think: “Isn’t that great! They are so keen.” But you’re still falling into the same pitfalls above – allowing yourself to be dazzled by creative rather than a logical evaluation of the potential partnership. You’ve also now created an uneven playing field. Be sure agencies are competing on equal terms – and the consequences for any agency that breaks them are well-communicated.

Bottom line for the client:

Set ground rules – and stick to them. Make clear that creative spec work will not be tolerated and any agency that produces it will be disqualified from the pitch.

Bottom line for the agency:

Ask the client or search consultant questions about the pitch process, and what happens to an agency that skirts the rules. You have a right to ask good questions, and the client should want that from a partner.


Get to Know Each Other

A brand doesn’t ask their CMO to flesh out a marketing plan before hiring her. But the brand interviews her, reviews her previous work and checks references. It also evaluates the CMO for “fit”. Similarly, the CMO doesn’t accept a job without knowing everything she can about her potential employer. Clients and agencies should do the same with each other. An exercise of rapid-fire questions between client and agency can yield authentic interactions and give a good idea of how you might fit together – the most important criteria to a successful, long-lasting relationship.

Bottom line for the client:

You’ll spend a lot of time with the agency you hire. Get to know them before you hire them. Do one-on-one interviews with the people who will be the day-to-day agency team: the account person, the strategic planner, the creative director, etc.

Bottom line for the agency:

Know what working with this client will mean for your agency and the talent you have worked so hard to attract, train and retain.


Be Respectful

Remember, what you say and do reflects on the brand you represent and impacts your reputation in the industry. You’re a client who can’t untether yourself from your phone during agency presentations? Phones down! Or you’re an agency person who talks and talks about your awesomeness without ever actually listening to the client? Be a good listener and be respectful of each other.

Bottom line for the client:

Even if there is no spec work required, good agencies will still put hundreds of hours into preparing themselves for a new business opportunity. If you’re gracious and say thank you and mean it, you will get 110% from the agency on the next assignment.

Bottom line for the agency:

Many clients put a lot of thought and effort into the pitch process. Recognize that, be appreciative of their time and say thank you.


Avoid a Pitch Altogether

Before you start looking for an agency, have you made every effort to make it work with your current agency partner? Just like marriage counselling, there are consultants out there who will conduct a relationship evaluation to identify where the gaps are in the agency-client relationship. Sometimes the relationship becomes dysfunctional for reasons that could be fixed with a heart-to-heart conversation and getting really candid with one another. Have that conversation. And if it can’t be fixed, as the client, don’t invite the incumbent agency to pitch. That’s not cool and just wastes everyone’s time. Straightforwardness and honesty are the best policy. If it’s at a state of no return, the other option for the client is to identify an agency they admire and feel a sense of “fit” with and give them a project. Many of our best relationships have started this way.

Bottom line for the client and agency:

You both owe it to one another to have one more conversation as to why the relationship might not be working. It can save a lot of time and money – and create an even better working relationship – if you can find a way to avoid running an agency pitch. Sometimes simply switching up the team with new, positive energy on the business can save the relationship.

The Ultimate Pitch Checklist

  • • Identify the reasons to run an agency pitch and be thoughtful about the agencies you invite.
  • • Don’t be robotic in your solicitation to agencies. Be human. Pick up a phone. Have a conversation.
  • • Do your homework on the shops you might like invited to pitch. Then invite the top five or six shops.
  • • Hire a reputable search consultant to help determine the best agencies to invite and run a thorough, efficient and fair process.
  • • Map out the whole pitch process and clearly communicate expectations for each step.
  • • Spec creative turns your pitch process into a beauty contest that won’t provide a true reflection of the agency you’re about to hire – #SayNoToSpec.
  • • Keep a level playing field for the agencies. Clearly define the rules of engagement. Outline the consequences if an agency breaks them.
  • • Remember that chemistry and “fit” is the most important factor to a successful agency-client relationship. Get to know the people who would be on your account.
  • • If you really want to see creative work from your top agencies, give an agency a real live project, collaborate with them during creative development and compensate them as though they were already your partner.
  • • Phones down in the meeting! Even without spec, agencies put in hundreds of hours into preparing for a pitch. Be gracious and you’ll get 110% from the agency you do hire.
  • • Ask yourself if you can’t work things out with your existing agency. The pitch process is expensive and time-consuming. Be sure you’re prepared to go through with it.
  • • Know your strengths. If a client is holding a pitch for a big shop, and you’re a small team, don’t waste your time.
  • • Be selective with the pitches you participate in. Automated “To whom it may concern” invites likely won’t lead to a true agency-client partnership.
  • • Ask how many agencies are pitching – and how many will be shortlisted. Too many in either category is a huge red flag.
  • • Find out of if the client is working with an agency search consultant. Ask around to determine his or her reputation.
  • • Understand the full pitch process and all the steps required of you during the pitch.
  • • Spec creative puts your agency into an expensive cycle that diverts resources from paying clients – #SayNoToSpec.
  • • Make sure you’re competing on a level playing field. Know the consequences for agencies that break the rules.
  • • Ask the client questions about their business and what they’re looking for – and listen to their answers.
  • • Show your personality. Be passionate. Letting what makes you different shine through will go a long way to helping both parties determine true “fit”.

What did we miss?

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Our take on spec work