Lessons from a failed attempt at an RFP

A couple years ago, I worked on my first RFP for a small agency [1].

We received the request from a medium-sized packaged-goods company in need of a few marketing basics, like building awareness and re-engineering their inadequate marketing.

A bit of background: besides describing the agency’s estimated fees, a proposal is an opportunity to dazzle the client. Typically, it includes how you’re going to solve their problem differently than the competition.

For an entry-level, fresh out-of-college marketer, this is a wet dream. Finally, a chance to tell the old-world company how they’re doing it all wrong, describing their wasted investments in traditional marketing and awaited goldmine in social media.

I began to work on our approach, how we were going to do it differently than the big advertising houses. But I hit a wall. The company wasn’t clueless. Their blog and Facebook page proved otherwise–all done very well. Couple this with their traditional media mix (print, TV, banners) and no base was uncovered.

Lesson #1: few major companies “don’t get it.” Marketing has a bell curve–most companies create average marketing and achieve average results.

Not surprisingly, I was brainwashed by my daily consumption of marketing blogs (i.e., the Adage Power 150), convincing me that any company not named Apple, Zappos, or Amazon was littered with ineptitude. But most companies are not the prom kings of the blogosphere. Or mocked for their failed attempts at juice re-packaging. Or sensational enough for an HBS Case Study. In short, your typical firm is executing on a whole lot of routine stuff.

And this makes it so much more difficult to improve. I racked my brain for this RFP, searching for unique ideas to inject into the proposal. But the company had already experimented with the “buzz” ideas, like design, social, interactive, vital, community, etc. Nothing was glaringly perverse, and my limited knowledge of marketing was quickly exhausted.

Lesson #2: Without years of experience, don’t expect to walk into a marketing department and preach the gospel. All of your impulsive ideas have already been considered, researched, and shot down.

I searched for that idea, the gem that would anchor our proposal and manufacture credibility. But the disruptive improvements are certainly not coming from a novice like myself. And the answer is not simply activating a channel like social media. It’s the well-research ideas, those vetted by the brand veterans and hard data, that have a chance at making a difference.

Two years after this humbling experience, I just relived the RFP. I again rode the emotional roller-coaster of questioning everything I knew.

But with time comes expertise, as well as an acute ability to bullshit. And it makes writing proposals so much easier.

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