A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

RFPs: The Least Creative Way to Hire People

Remember high school? Let’s say (hypothetically, of course) someone passed you a note in class that was actually a secret invitation to a party at someone’s house. You learned that a bunch of people were invited, some you knew, some you didn’t, some you liked, and some you’d grown tired of talking to. You ended up going to the party anyway.

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Everyone was wearing their coolest clothes, showing off, and trying to be smarter and funnier than each other. But the real reason you went was simply to get the attention of a person you were interested in. You may have even scared up the nerve to actually ask them out, and on rare occasions, they may have even said yes. When that happened you were over the moon, but admittedly nervous. But most times, they just ignored you and they went to the dance with someone else while you sat at home and listened to Rush by yourself. (I mean, nothing.)

I thought those days were behind me.

If you work in any kind of service industry you’ve undoubtedly come across the Request For Proposal, or “RFP.” The RFP process has become a standard by which organizations solicit competitive bids. At its core, the RFP process is an attempt to level the playing field and minimize bias. Everyone is held to the same requirements—no special treatment, no rule bending. In return, the organization issuing the RFP is able to select a vendor by comparing apples to apples. That’s the theory, anyway.

Many non-profits, higher education institutions, and government agencies are actually required to issue RFPs.

For non-profits, the drive to secure competitive pricing is an economic necessity. Additionally, it’s important for non-profits to ensure that their donors and supporters are confident that their funds are spent in accordance with the organization’s mission.

As far as government agencies go, well, it’s like chocolate and peanut butter. The bidding process is pretty much automatic. I have always been curious about whether there are state or federal laws that require a bid process for government agencies. I couldn’t find any substantive information to support that for this article, so if you work for a government agency and can shed some light on this for us, please add your two cents in the comments area.

You’re often invited to participate in the RFP process by someone with “contract,” “procurement,” or “sourcing” in their title. Sometimes, you’re asked to access a secret website with a secret password where you find links to a bunch of secret documents. Or, you get an email with an attached ZIP archive loaded with goodies. You don’t know how many others are privy to the secret, but you know you’re not alone.

A Christmas sweater or a Big Jim Sports Camper

You start to weigh your options. This could be the best thing ever. The money could be amazing. It could keep your team busy for months. Or, the demands of the project or client could be impossible to meet. The number of stakeholders you’ll have to achieve buy-in from might fill a high school auditorium. And in the end, you may be forbidden from even promoting the work.

At Happy Cog, we see our fair share of RFPs. In fact, we’re responding to a few of them as I write this article, and we probably will be doing the same months from now. We’re always honored and humbled that organizations think highly enough of our capabilities to invite us to participate.

Despite this, I wouldn’t be entirely truthful if I said RFPs were a source of, shall we say, excitement. RFPs are like those odd high school party moments. It’s kind of like getting a sweater for Christmas as a kid. It’s a present, but it ain’t no Big Jim Sports Camper.

I’m not the only one I know who isn’t thrilled with RFPs. And it’s not because I’m lazy and I don’t want to do the legwork to respond to them. When it gets down to it, I feel that RFPs are simply the least creative way to hire creative people. The rigidity of the process, and the lack of meaningful dialogue makes this little more than a game of roulette.

Heartburn-inducing RFP hallmarks


An RFP, in addition to describing the business need to be fulfilled, can be accompanied by a number of requirements and specifications, including the need to provide or fill out:

  • Immigration/security forms/clearances
  • Historical financial reports (I have thoughts about that.)
  • Proof of insurance coverages
  • Tax compliance forms
  • Staff bios/resumes
  • Examples of similar project experience or case studies
  • Lists of references
  • Proposed project schedules and milestones
  • Cost projections
  • Rate schedules
  • Non-disclosure forms
  • Non-compete forms

And this is all before you even get to write your proposal.

RFPs can also specify a host of very peculiar stipulations. Examples include:

  • Submitting multiple printed copies of the proposal via registered or express mail (often requiring the printouts to be labeled “original” and “copy”)
  • Submitting PDF versions to a specific email address with a specific subject line, such as “RFP Response for offer TF-124453-G.”
  • Requiring submission by a specific time on a specific date, with anything late (even a minute late) being subject to disqualification
  • Requiring proposals to be double-spaced using a specific typeface and point size
  • Requiring that the proposal response not exceed a certain number of pages
  • Requests to know what your office square footage is (I know, right?)
  • Requests for “photographs” (their words, not mine) of previous projects

I’ve heard of people receiving RFPs that require you to attach multiple copies of your proposal PDF to an email so copies can be provided to internal teams. Multiple. Instances. Of. The. Same. Attachment.

Are these details simply annoying, or do they actually hinder the process of engagement? Well, both. Business development is expensive. Every minute you spend estimating, writing proposals, developing strategies, and performing pitches costs money. When you waste time trying to satisfy meaningless or extraneous requirements on top of all of that, you inevitably end up having to charge more for your work.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying asking for things like references, bios, or similar project experience is unreasonable. But assembling that information and re-packaging it when it already exists for public consumption is. At Happy Cog, we publish bios of all of our people on our website, and we are very diligent about publishing case studies of our most relevant work. It’s the most accurate, up-to-date information we publish. There are times when I suspect some RFP issuers haven’t glanced at our website. They’ve simply heard of us somewhere and added us to the distribution list to fulfill an internal requirement. Or so I suspect.

Creativity squashers

Our team is made up of designers, developers, and strategists. We heavily rely on our proposals to perform “show and tell” for us when we can’t in person. We spend a lot of time honing our language, articulating our solutions, and actually making the proposals themselves beautiful. In fact, we spent several months overhauling all of our document styles to maximize readability, consistency, and adherence to our brand.

If an RFP specifies that you must deliver your thoughts in double-spaced, 12 pt. Arial in ten pages or less, isn’t that short-circuiting the creativity the RFP issuer seeks in the first place? It’s tough to articulate your thoughts with arbitrary page limitations in place, and it’s impossible to look pretty in double-spaced, 12 pt. Arial. There have been a number of times when we simply wanted to provide inline, Dribbble-esque screen grabs in our response, only to have that possibility forbidden by the RFP specs. In fact, we would have been disqualified had we chosen to do so.

If you’re issuing an RFP and you’re expecting a creative firm to provide a creative response, well, let them be creative. If they want to send a letter-pressed proposal or post a video to Vimeo, wouldn’t that help them stand out? That’s how people get on TV all the time.

Upfront “creative thinking”

Ah, the request for “creative thinking” as part of a proposal response. Some RFPs expect it, some don’t. You might consider this speculative or “spec” work. Our default stance has always been not to entertain requests for spec work, and the reasons are well documented. A prospective client asking a web designer to redesign their home page without knowing a thing about them is a slippery slope, and it inherently devalues your role as a creative professional.

However, there are instances where the issuer of an RFP has put some thoughts together themselves, and are looking for input or suggestions about them in the proposal. It could be to comment on some comps that they’ve assembled, or to offer some feedback based on some strategic goals. I think those instances are worthy of consideration, as long as the creative professional is not giving away their secret sauce or spending inordinate amounts of time.

Thoughts for those that issue RFPs

Bring back the golf course

To promote uniformity and consistency, RFPs often discount communication. I know of firms that have won very large contracts resulting from RFPs without ever meeting or speaking with anyone on the issuer side. It’s like marrying someone you discovered on an internet dating site after trading just a “wink.”

Speaking from experience, we’ve had our most meaningful business relationships when we speak with our clients-to-be first. Those conversations can happen in a number of ways. You can orchestrate a phone call. You can have a videoconference on Skype, FaceTime, or iChat. Or, in the best case scenario, you can meet them in person with real handshakes, awkward pauses, and all.

How about considering earmarking a few grand in your project budget to pay to bring potential business partners in to talk face to face? Or offer to split the costs? They’ll know you’re serious, and if you end up speaking the same language and even trade some laughs, you may have found yourself a match to feel good about.

Patrick Russell has an interesting take in his article What’s Wrong with the RFP where he states, “The [RFP] process is considered an improvement over the deals made between CEOs on the golf course.”

I guess I’m saying bring back the golf course.

Loosen up

Or, as Sergeant Hulka so eloquently stated in the movie Stripes, “Lighten up, Francis.”

You get more out of people when you let them do their thing. I have a friend whose parents raised him like veal. He couldn’t play outside for very long, he had to study four hours a day (even on weekends), he couldn’t watch TV, or talk on the phone.

To make him the best he could be, his parents actually stifled him by imposing so many restrictions, no matter how well-intentioned they were. When he left home for college, to say he blew off steam is an understatement. It was like watching a steam pipe burst.

Today, he’s not following one iota of the plan his parents established for him. He’s neither a doctor nor a lawyer, but he could damn well be. Instead, he’s living his life as he wants, and is successful on his own terms. Though it took him a while to settle down, he’s certainly hit his stride and he’s doing some amazing things.

My point is this: trying to make creative people fit some mold established as conventional wisdom or best practice may not always yield the best results. Lay the groundwork, but put the onus on the creative person to do what they do best—problem solve. Light the fuse and get away.

Thoughts for those that respond to RFPs

Own the process

I’ve often referenced the project planner we use at Happy Cog. It’s a comprehensive questionnaire we provide as a download on our website, and we require interested parties complete it before we consider working together. Feel free to borrow anything you see in there, as we feel it’s for the greater good.

The project planner is also a fantastic filtering mechanism. If prospects don’t take the time to thoughtfully answer the questions or simply leave them blank, that signals they may not be very invested in the process. On the other hand, if they answer the questions thoroughly, conversationally, or with a sense of humor, we know they are someone we want to continue a dialogue with.

Our planner often short-circuits the RFP process completely. Sometimes prospects issue RFPs because they’re simply trying to convey goals and expectations to you. If you provide the vehicle for them to do that, they may not even need to send you one. Or, if they do, they send it as ancillary material. The planner then becomes the working document. It’s RFP Kryptonite.

Be sel-ec-tive. Be-e sel-ec-tive!

You have to read that subhead as a cheerleader, BTW. Otherwise, just read it as “be selective.”

If you stick your finger in an outlet enough times, you’ll learn not to do it again. Look for what you consider warning signs in an RFP. If you feel it’s simply too arduous, nebulous, or widely distributed, don’t feel bad about passing. There will be other opportunities.

A lot of people say to me, “Easy for you to say. You don’t have to worry about getting work, you’re with Happy Cog. I’m an independent web designer, and it’s tough to find work.”

I hear you.

You know, Happy Cog does have to worry about getting work. Good work. We may see more lead volume than smaller shops or individuals, and we certainly see less lead volume than big agencies. But finding the right opportunity is tough at any scale. You can take what’s in front of you, but if you don’t consider happiness as part of the equation, you’re going to burn out.

If you want to see more opportunities come your way, there’s no shortcut. Do good work. It sounds cliché, I know. But doing good work, being diligent about promoting it, and getting away from your computer to network at conferences and events is, in my book, the holy trinity. The rest takes care of itself. Oh, and don’t steal other people’s work. That’s a decision you’ll regret forever.

Can we change the default?

I’ve shared some observations and thoughts about the RFP process as it applies to creative service providers in this article, and I have spent hours and hours talking with my peers about their own experiences. But I’ve never really considered a way to establish a grassroots movement to change the core thinking behind how business initiates and establishes relationships with creative people.

This is where I’m looking for your thoughts. My colleague Jeffrey Zeldman led a charge to get these things we call web standards in place, making the lives of web designers and anyone who publishes web content infinitely easier. Why can’t we establish a new set of standards dictating how new business relationships sprout? Or is that a pipe dream?

Let me know what you think. Or share your own RFP stories, because they’re fun too.

Now please excuse me while I print this thing in triplicate and send it via nationally recognized carrier by nine a.m.

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