As an independent creative, you get to decide how you will attract clients and projects. One option is via Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Whether or not you respond to RFPs is a choice, and I recommend that you make your decision a business policy.
Having policies is simply good business. They act as your compass, keeping you on course. I decided years ago and made it a policy to not respond to RFPs or engage in pitching (essentially the same thing) for new clients. I receive a number of RFPs every year. In 2015 I decided to go ahead and respond to one RFP because it was from a former client. I spent more than a day preparing a multi-page response to the agency’s request. It got me an interview with their current marketing director, who inferred that she was happy with the current designer and was only going through the RFP process because the agency mandated it. They weren’t going to make any changes. Okay, then. Thank you for wasting my time.
RFPs and pitching is common when large, long-term projects are on the line. If you’ve seen Mad Men or The Pitch on AMC, you’ll have a good idea of what a creative team goes through to win business by pitching. For smaller projects and clients, it’s becoming more prevalent, especially online. LinkedIn ProFinder, for example, allows smaller businesses and entrepreneurs to propose projects on which freelancers submit an initial bid based on minimal information.
Since the proposal/pitch process is so prevalent, why did I make it a policy to not participate? I share a number of reasons here, in hope that you will find them helpful in deciding on your own policies. My purpose is not to deter you from pitching if you choose to, but to explain why I believe it’s not the best means to acquire clients. It omits the careful development of targeted prospects that you can uniquely serve, and requires that you give away your creativity – the reason you are in business — for nothing.
Pitching is not good for business. In the pitching process creatives are expected to do their best work for an uncertain prospect with no compensation. Pitching is a huge expense in terms of time and effort, and is entirely speculative. It’s an “If I like it, I’ll pay for it.” scenario, which is speculative. If you win the business, that’s great. But f you don’t win, you are, in fact, working for free, and that is just bad for business. Pitching robs us of time, money and creative energy.
You have to decide: Do I want to compete for my clients or attract them? Do I want to give away my ideas?
Pitching is a competition in which a prospective client assesses a number of creative firms by testing them with the same design project guidelines — the RFP. The prospect sets forth the parameters and sends it to many recipients. The recipients then scramble to develop creative concept on an unrealistic deadline and present it to the prospect in a winner-take-all challenge. You have to decide: Do I want to compete for my clients or attract them? Do I want to give away my ideas?
The prospective client has a right to be concerned that their investment in the creative work will pay off. They are unsure, and so set up a test case — a competition, without calling it that — for creatives to prove themselves. They do not want to make a mistake by spending money on solutions that don’t accomplish anything. This is perfectly understandable. However, even the winner’s work may prove to be ineffective in achieving the client’s goals in the long run.
Pitching awards good pitchers. Pitching does not necessarily award the creators of the best solutions. It awards those who pitch well. Most of the time, effective solutions are born out of the dynamics of a working relationship between designer and client. Pitching and RFPs do not create that necessary relationship, but prevent it.
Pitching and RFPs prevent communication. Neither allows the necessary information to be fully communicated to the designer. It’s impossible to create a fitting design solution when bits of necessary information are bypassed. While it is true that in the proposal process, there is a Q and A period where the recipients can ask for clarification, targeted conversations that are necessary to fully understand the purpose and impetus for the project cannot happen.
Having participated in several RFP and pitching processes, I have discovered that the process may be a ruse. This is the story I shared at the beginning of this article, and it was not my first experience of the sort. The prospective client already has a creative in mind but has to go through the proposal process because it’s required by company policy. They interview everyone who responds with no intention of selecting anyone but the one they’re already working with, or someone they want to work with.
…pitching positions the creative work as a commodity, rather than as a necessary and carefully-crafted business asset.
Pitching creates an unequal relationship between the creative and the prospective client. If the focus is to win the pitch — to be better than other competitors — the focus cannot also be on developing an understanding of the prospective client’s current position, personality, purpose and goals. These four things are crucial aspects of a successful creative solution. Another issue with pitching is that it is lopsided. The creative risks a great deal, while the client has greater power in the process and nothing to lose. Successful working relationships are mutual, peer-to-peer.
Pitching devalues the work itself. Like other forms of speculative work, pitching positions the creative work as a commodity, rather than as a necessary and carefully-crafted business asset.
Pitching wastes your time. Preparing a proposal and competing in a pitch process is an investment of time, and there is no assurance you will reap any reward for your work. Would you rather spend your time actually working on your business or on a client project, or would you like to spend it preparing a detailed proposal with no guarantees of a return on your investment? Many RFPs require you to offer an actual solution in the proposal. You go through your creative process, provide a solution or several that the client can run with whether or not you are awarded the project.
3 Alternatives to the RFP/pitch process
If you receive an RFP, you may want to consider some options that may keep you under consideration while enabling you to avoid the RFP competition. Here are 3 that I have used with success in the past.
Find out why you were included in the RFP distribution. If the response is that your work stood out, or that you were referred, offer to sit down with the prospect and discuss your process, impetus, and inspiration for the work represented in your portfolio. Ascertain fundamental problems they need solved via your work, and guide them step by step through your process from initial definition to final outcome and results, making a case for your ability to meet their needs. I show my work from previous projects: exploratory sketches, research, questions I asked the clients, and how I addressed their concerns. Basically, I present an in-person case study. This face-to- face allows each party to assess the other and decide if working together will, in fact, work.
If any other response comes back, don’t participate. You time is better spent elsewhere.
Elevate your work. Past performance does not guarantee future success, but it does lay the foundation for being trustworthy. Every client believes their project is so unique that it’s never been done before. A portfolio clearly demonstrates capability, or lack of it, in creative problem-solving and execution.
From the client’s point of view, a portfolio is a collection of successful work. Their unspoken questions are: “So you can do good work. Is your work that good all the time? What if I sign a contract and you skip out on me, or you don’t put your best effort into it?” Develop responses to these legitimate questions. You can also ask what their specific concerns are in working with creative freelancers.
My design work is distinct. It’s not a good fit for every client. My qualifications are evident in the work I have already completed for other clients — for which I’ve been compensated, by the way. There is a variety of work in my portfolio, demonstrating good thinking, technical expertise, effective solutions, and versatility in types of clients and solutions. A portfolio clearly demonstrates capability, or lack of it, in creative problem-solving and execution. When you talk through your portfolio with someone, they gain a better understanding of what it will be like to work with you.
A portfolio clearly demonstrates capability, or lack of it, in creative problem-solving and execution.
Offer a small, paid, low-risk project to test the working relationship. Rather than pitch, I inform a prospect up front that I don’t do speculative work. I offer to meet with them to discuss their needs and then create an agreed-upon number of concepts at an agreed-upon fee before they commit to the full scope of work and final designs. This allows the client to experience my thinking and process first-hand, and learn what it’s like to work with me, with little commitment and risk on their part.
For me, I would rather compete in the field every day with excellence, not just for a pitch or in a proposal. Building a body of work that demonstrates my ability to collaborate with a client successfully over the duration of a project says more about me as a creative professional and the kinds of clients I want to work with than engaging in a speculative process that no one but the parties involved will see. I strive to create excellent, effective work that satisfies the needs of businesses and organizations, on my own terms. And that is foundational to freelancing.
Your turn: Do you have an alternative to RFPs and pitching? Share your insights in the comments.