The RFP: Back from the Dead?


According to Digiday’s Lucia Moses, “media buyers are ditching the much hated RFP.”   Clearly this was meant to be a crowd-pleasing idea:  both agencies and clients reportedly can’t stand them anymore, and to sellers they’ve been the nasty habit they just can’t seem to kick.  I think it all sounds a little too good to be true.

The RFP is the Freddy Krueger of the digital buying-selling process.  It’s the friend from college who crashed on your couch “for a night or two” but ends up staying for 10 months.  It’s the annoying song that’s stuck in our collective heads.  In theory, we all want to be rid of it.  In spirit and practice it’s still very much with us.

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Yes it’s true that there are fewer digital RFPs being sent out (a look at Seller Crowd will back this up) and fewer winners in the process.  Programmatic buying has rightly taken a big chunk of those transactional dollars out of the system, and consolidation into the hands of Facebook and Google has taken more.  But the RFP is still very much with us: it’s just migrated.

Now that avails and standard ad units are off the table, buyers are using the RFP process to ask for things like custom videos, content marketing ideas, influencer campaigns and social posts.  If anything, this is worse.  Now a buyer can ask an unlimited number of questionably qualified publishers for things that are really difficult and expensive to bid on.  And sellers are taking the bait.  The arrival of every RFP – never mind how speculative – becomes like a crash cart rolling through the trauma unit of an ER.  Creatives, account management, pricing, events and talent are all dragged in to save the patient – who still expires 80-90 percent of the time.

The RFP was a weak idea when we were trading standard ad units for dollars.  In the content marketing era it’s a full-on dumpster fire.  Any seller who’s not connecting – proactively and directly — with clients and agency leadership is part of the problem.  Any publisher who’s ignoring the P&L of the weekly creative RFP lottery is mortgaging their future and tossing their most valuable resources – their ideas and the creativity of their people – into the wind.  Agencies won’t stop using the RFP.  Sales organizations can only control if, when and how they respond.

Qualify.  Qualify.  Qualify.