Playing Offense: The RFO.

Irritation and push-back (from publishers, agencies and clients) on the increasingly irrelevant RFP (request-for-proposal) is a well-worn theme at this point. Clients and agency leadership think they're a waste of billable hours and an awful process for buyers. For publishers and sales teams, they are at best the pinatas we all get to blindly swing at near the end of the party; at worst, they are the dumpster fire that consumes time, resources, morale and hope.

So why are so few companies doing anything about it? Why are we continuing to throw people and money at a process that's not only broken - it's getting worse! One answer is that nature abhors a vacuum: that without a clear alternative, people will cling to a deeply flawed behavior or broken relationship. Just in case that's what's happening, I've got an alternative.

Stop answering RFPs. Start writing RFOs.

The RFO - request-for-opportunity - isn't an incremental change to the RFP; it is its complete opposite. In the RFP process the seller reacts. In the RFO process, the seller drives. Where the RFP is based on a bunch of issues and qualifications that were agreed upon by various committees, the RFO is disruptive and driven by a strong POV.

The RFO is really quite simple. It consists of just four steps.

  • Find a couple of higher level decision makers - senior account owners at agencies or practice leads at the client - for an account you covet. Don't worry if they haven't gotten budget or plans yet (that's kind of the point!)
  • Do an hour's research on the specific brand or product in question. Specifically, look for key competitors, core message they are conveying, hard-to-find audiences, disruption in their marketplace, key promotions or dates, etc.
  • Pick a problem you think you could help the customer solve and the means by which your company could solve it. (Pick one that's big enough to matter, but small enough to fix...don't go crazy.) Write out the problem in plain English in just a couple dozen words.
  • Now send a very short email with a really clear headline: We'd like to help you (or your client) solve for X. Avoid all the fluff, get to the point and stay focused on the problem. They don't care about your company background or any of that (yet). Tell them your team has done some creative thinking on the account and you'd like to bring them into the collaboration. (If talking to an agency exec, be sure to mention how this RFO might help them extend their capabilities, generate some incremental client spend and help them defend their business from encroachers.)

It's not hard, just different. You don't have to be right, just credible. Companies focused on answering RFPs are hoping for a sliver of the remaining budget. Those who write RFOs are taking concrete steps toward creating budget. If you think you're already doing this, go back and read your outbound emails carefully. Too often, you're probably just leading with we've got a great idea! - which holds no water with the client.

It's not about your product, it's about their problem. Don't tell them what you sell; tell them what you solve.