The Illusion of Inclusion.

The 20th year of online advertising is underway and clearly so much has changed. Today's bandwidth, technology, devices and automation would be unrecognizable to those of us plying the trade back in 1994. But there's one thing from that long ago era that's still with us: Far too many digital sales teams are still organizing themselves around the agency RFP. And the consequences are disastrous.

I've written about the industry's flawed RFP process in this space before - comparing many online sellers to blindfolded kids hitting a pinata hoping candy comes out. But across the dozens of workshops and scores of seller interviews I conduct each year, I still hear seller after seller, team after team assuming the RFP process is their key to success.

The assumption goes like this: (1) We will work hard as an organization to introduce our company and products to agency media teams, with the goal of being included on future RFPs. (2) Once we start receiving those RFPs we'll work hard on the responses (often at the last minute) and throw a ton of added value and fresh ideas at them. (3) When we do win a spot on a plan, we'll then service the hell out of the business, watching the results like a fever chart, optimizing them where possible and bonusing a bunch of impressions when desperate. (4) Repeat this often enough and you'll gain the economic loyalty of the agency and client.

But it just doesn't work that way. "Inclusion" in the process is illusory...a pyrrhic victory. "Inclusion" of one more player on an RFP means less than nothing: it costs the buyer nothing - not even a stamp - and most of those included never have a legitimate shot of making the plan anyway. What's most damaging is that money, resources and -- most critically - valuable time are thrown at this flawed set of assumptions.

Sound hopeless? Only for those who choose not to change the equation. Start by accepting the RFP process for what it is: a formal justification process for that which the agency already wants to buy for its client. Now put your valuable human and financial capital to work on two new agendas: disruption and systemic enhancement. First, frame a disruptive challenge to the customer's thinking and work hard to introduce it at a high level well before the RFP process even begins. What do we know about the consumer, the process or the market that would be valuable to this customer? What will cause them to look at things differently? Once you've driven a wedge like this into the customer's reality, focus on how your company can bring long term value to this customer's process. Focus less on making the plan and more on making a difference.

Can you make these choices for all your customers right No. But you can choose a handful of your most deserving brands and agencies and change your approach tomorrow. Let me know if you want to talk about how.