At most publishing companies, RFP’s get no love. The RFP process started out as a legitimate and helpful tool for buyers to weed out less appropriate media options so they could let buyers focus more quality time on the remainders. But some agencies misuse RFPs. Some, caring more about cutting costs than servicing their clients, now use RFPs as the primary means of evaluation where less experienced (read: cheaper) media buyers can make “decisions” by adding the numbers while simultaneously building a paper trail to cover their butts should the less than insightful media decisions flop. Yuck!

But RFPs, as imperfect as they are, remain an invitation to do business. Love or hate them, they always represent opportunity, but not always to those who play by the rules.

When you first get an RFP, read it several times. For the first read, forget about WHAT they are asking you, and focus on HOW they are asking you for it. Ask yourself the following: Are they asking for the right things and asking the right questions? Are the goals of the RFP clear, intelligent, realistic, and on target? Given the state of your industry or category, are they asking for what is in the best interest of their (and your) client?

Here is how you should react after you answer the above questions:

The Intelligently Designed RFP

If you get a well thought-out RFP, play by the rules. Respond to exactly what they are looking for with no hyperbole or “creative” interpretation.
Read the questions carefully and respond to each point with care. View the intelligent RFP as a test to help you progress to the next level of a longer term relationship.

The process can be a way to “try on” a new buying relationship, and to build trust. Charles H. Green, of Trusted Advisor Associates, advocates using RFPs as an initial trust building tool. Green recommends accepting the RFPs often narrow perspective, and accepting the possibility of being positioned on parody with your competitors. He advises to read the RFP carefully and respond to the client as if they were already one of your very best clients. After all, if they cannot trust you to fill out and respond to an RFP, how can they trust you with more serious issues if they give you their business?

Green suggests not just submitting the RFP but offering a post evaluation review after submitting. If the agency is impressed with your RFP response they may let you state your case from the point of view of the RFP in more elaborate terms.

The RFP From Another Planet

I have seen many RFPs that read like they were written by aliens from another planet who have no understanding of the industry or category they target. But before you plan acts of rebellion, you need a serious talk with your ego. The key question is, “Does this RFP disadvantage my media by asking for criteria where my media does not look as good as others (i.e. first year qualified circulation, click throughs, ad to edit ratio, etc.)?” An RFP disadvantages a client when it is off target for the industry or category.

If it’s just your media, play along and play by the rules. But if you can make a legitimate case that the CLIENT is not being served you cannot just go along. Everything you bring up must be in the name of doing better for their CLIENT, not a thinly veiled effort to advance your own media sales efforts.

The Professional Boiler Plate RFP

If you get a professionally written RFP that is boiler plate, respond by filling it out completely but hold back a little. When the boiler plate RFP asks for an “out of the box, original, custom solution,” give them a great idea or two but hold back on developing the whole idea—you might pitch the concept of a Webinar but say you need more input before you can give them pricing. Your goal is to initiate a dialogue and get them to respond before you put your heart and soul into a proposal that won’t be seriously considered.

RFPs always represent opportunity. Try to see it as an imperfect process that you can use to your advantage.

Josh Gordon is president of, a training and consulting company that helps publishers grow their online business. Gordon also publishes a blog at

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