Ahh, Requests for Proposal. Most companies who write them are large organizations with extremely healthy budgets. Projects that can really put a fat, shiny star on your already killer portfolio. So when they land on our desks despite not having a relationship with the company, to the inexperienced (or mentally unstable) it seems like they're a winning lottery ticket. Far from it. More often than not, they're a waste of time, especially for smaller agencies and studios (like ours). 99.9% percent of the time, we don't respond to them (except to say no thank you). Here's why.
1. They're way too limiting
Way too often the folks who wrote the RFP wrote them with silly requirements that bring back memories of college term papers – not exactly something that should come to mind when I think about a business. These requirements may range from answering certain questions within x number of words to using only their format for the proposal response. While writing well is a skill I believe all designers (and business owners) should have, at the end of the day, that's not why we get hired. Nor is it because we follow a set of arbitrary rules. We get hired because of the work we do; not how well we write about it.
2. We expect a fair opportunity at getting hired – RFPs are not made for that
Most RFPs are written and sent out to meet some ridiculous organizational requirement even though in a lot of cases the company already knows what agency they are going to hire. That automatically means that if we decide to respond to an RFP, we're immediately wasting our time trying to win a race that's already been run. No thanks. We want to hear from folks that actually want to work with us.
3. We won't give free advice
Every once in a while an RFP is written in a way to get free consulting, as opposed to actually hiring a company to help solve whatever problem is at hand. Now don't get me wrong – I like helping out in various ways when talking with a client or prospective client. Good karma, paying it forward. That might include giving helpful tips or suggestions from a "big picture" view. But free advice or detailed suggestions on how to solve a specific problem? Sorry, at that point we're consulting and we deserve compensation for it.
4. We hate bureaucracy
Yes, it exists and sometimes can't be avoided, but RFP processes are one of the most convoluted and asinine things to ever exist. What's worse, they're rarely questioned by the people that blindly follow the process. Jumping through hoops just to be able to hope that we get a job is not a good way to start a business relationship. Nor is it a good way for us to stay in business. We want to stay in business! Further, we want to be in business with companies that respect us from the get-go.
6. The work we provide is not a commodity
Hiring a design agency means actually building a relationship with people who are going to help your business thrive and/or grow. We're not pulling proverbial widgets out of thin air. If all websites were equal then choosing a web studio would be more like shopping for a car. But websites are not equal because businesses and the people who run them aren't equal. Each have their own stories, brands and personalities. That is what we start with before doing an ounce of creative work.
7. We need way more information than even a 30-page RFP can provide
As Andy Rutledge points out in his excellent article on RFPs, "No responsible agency can bid a project simply from an RFP." Why? Because there isn't enough information on any RFP to determine things beyond features. RFPs skip a critical "get to know you" process that is a part of how we work. It's the only way to really know if we'll be a good fit for someone and vice versa. RFPs take all the human contact out of it. It's essentially like being forced to marry someone you've only seen in a photograph.
8. We believe in relationships
RFPs are one-sided and as such, create a one-sided pseudo-relationship. True professional relationships are built on a foundation of respect and responsibility from both parties. Professionals are hired to apply their expertise and experience to your benefit. An RFP takes that away and creates more of a one-sided situation where "the vendor" takes on most, if not all, of the responsibility. Design doesn't work that way. Design should always be a collaboration between client and design studio.
9. We're a small studio and we hate wasting time; time = money
Look, money is a necessity in this world. It provides me and my family with a certain lifestyle that I'm not willing to compromise on (nor should anyone else). That goes for my team too. For us, every minute counts. Responding to a stiff RFP is essentially a waste of time (made worse when you consider the almost non-existent chance of even winning – see point three). That's time that could be spent making paying clients happy, helping them achieve the business and lifestyle they want, and we get compensated fairly for it.