by Jane Ottenberg

A Fed Ex arrives on your desk with an RFP from Ford. You: a) jump for joy and immediately set up a meeting with your staff on how to wow them; or b) throw it away.
For an ad buy, most of us would jump at least a little since it signals some interest on Ford’s part to advertise. RFPs are part of the number-crunching game of today’s media buyers. If, on the other hand, the RFP is for a custom publishing project, keep the trash can in the vicinity. There are road blocks to winning the work, particularly if you don’t know the potential client.

Here’s why:
First, in many cases, the RFP is sent out already with a front-runner. One of your competitors is likely already working with the client. Custom publishing is a relationship-oriented service business so if the decision makers already know and like a competitor, it’s usually an uphill battle.
Second, in custom publishing, there is only one winner. You could get to the finals and almost win. But that’s not enough. You either win, or you lose. So there’s a lot on the line if you aren’t in control of the process.

Third, it’s hard to get an apples to apples comparison of services and pricing. This is usually a qualitative decision based on the type of services you propose. One competitor might have an internal staff, another might use freelancers. Someone could propose a $50,000 art budget, while another says a $5,000 art budget is all that’s needed. Typically, the client chooses the firm that it thinks will ultimately bring the best results within a comfortable budget range.

Finally, some RFPs require a tremendous amount of resources and spec work, which is fine as long as you’re seriously considered.

An RFP Reality Check
You can tell I’m a bit skeptical about RFPs. Yet with the right up front information and some control over the process, RFPs can be a great opportunity to win new business. Michael Hurley, president of Hanley Wood Custom Publishing, says, “I actually like RFPs. The key, of course, is how to respond.”

So, when your sales team gets fired up over that unsolicited RFP, it’s time for a reality check. Here’s what to do and consider when you get a custom publishing RFP with no prior relationship with the company sponsoring the project:

1) Build an inside relationship. If the contact person gives you the cold shoulder, then toss it. It’s not real. If the sponsoring company truly is interested in you, that contact can be your best coach or can connect you to someone who is part of the decision.
2) Get information. Meet with the decision-makers before agreeing to do the RFP—or at least get a conference call. They will answer most of your questions and you’ll get a leg up.
3) Get up-front promises from decision-makers. The RFP process should be give and take—not just give. If the company wants you to respond, your contacts will give you guidance throughout the decision-making process.
4) After you get all the information you can, make a gut decision. Don’t spend days laboring over your proposal if you don’t like what you’ve heard in the process. It’s time to be real. If you think you’ve got a shot, go for it.
5) Respond in a big way. Your proposal should mirror the RFP questions, yet demonstrate your creativity and enthusiasm for the project.
6) Beat your chest. But even more, show you understand the sponsoring company and know how to effectively extend the brand. Put some jazz into it.

Michael Hurley’s key is to “research as much as you can about the prospective client’s business and corporate culture. It may give you an understanding about the tone and structure of your response.”

That response, adds Hurley, should focus on the client. “Be direct. Be accurate. Be graphic. Always draw a connection to the client’s business, objectives, and requested responsibilities. Try to engage those reviewing the RFP by telling a story. You want them to realize this is the shop I want and these people sound like the business partners that would support our efforts.”

Bottom line: RFPs are not for the faint hearted. Go for it if you get good information throughout the process, particularly if you conclude it’s a level playing field. Otherwise, use the paper shredder and move on.

Jane Ottenberg is president of The Magazine Group, a custom publishing firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. She is on the board of the Custom Publishing Council.

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