Guessing games are not fun to me. Especially when everything is riding on choosing the right answer. For too many local, state and federal agencies that bloomfield knoble (bk) has dedicated its resources to assisting, they are playing a dangerous game that only hurts their outreach mission. This is not done intentionally. Most of the leaders of these agencies, departments, authorities, etc. believe they are doing the right thing. That is the shame of it all.
The lack of disclosure concerning budgets for important outreach and awareness work (government terms for marketing and advertising) is hurting the agencies and their missions. When a new RFP is placed on my desk and it is from our public sector friends, I immediately direct our RFP response team to ask the party responsible if they will disclose their budget for the ask. In most cases, the only way to receive an answer is to respond via the public forum of submitting questions and then receiving answers in bulk via the RFP site to all respondents. This always means the answer comes with a week or less to complete the RFP. That alone knocks out most of the best vendors. There is too much wrong with this process.
If I don’t see a budget and a very, very clear summation of the need, I instruct our team to ignore it. Often we hear back from the agency asking us why we did not submit for their RFP. (Backstory: Usually we have to show up in person for a pre-meeting and the agency leadership hears our experience and becomes highly interested in our RFP response.)
Our typical response: “Your request was unclear in terms of effort, deliverables and process. Moreover, you have not set a budget so, regretfully, we could not respond.”
Their typical response back to our typical response: “We think you should tell us what that budget should be.”
By this thinking, these government agencies are starting a dysfunctional relationship. (I should know. I have been in several, to date.) If there are no clear goals, process, level of effort and/or clearly defined deliverables, that makes it hard enough. But remove any parameters of a budget and now the RFP response process is, at best, a guessing game. This is especially true when actual media planning and placement are involved. You just can’t guess that without the required information.
So, we stay away from these RFPs because what really concerns me is that if, somehow we were to guess right and be awarded the contract, we will find our agency in a game of Russian Roulette we don’t expect to win.
Now, I have painted government agencies with a very broad brush. Certainly their are groups and individuals that get it and conduct a thorough and proper RFP process. These are the agencies we seek out and choose to work with. They understand they need a trusted advisor and partner. Even when we lose out on one of those RFPs to another vendor, at least we know the work likely will be done well.
It is common sense in the “real world” (outside government agencies) that a marketing or advertising firm be given clear goals to achieve within a pre-determined budget. If we don’t meet or surpass those goals, we get fired. Simple.
Obversely, it is fine to submit RFPs without a budget if the goals and effort are clearly understood. Even one that asks for media planning. The problem is that requires open discussions and follow up communication to determine the budget based on the goals. Because make no mistake, it is a PARTNERSHIP. Both entities put their reputations on the line with every RFP effort. At least, that is the way bk approaches it.
Unfortunately, our friends in too many government agencies don’t get that. Instead they use terms like, “best value” when it comes to their budget expectations. I can only presume that their thinking is that there is no other way to determine “best value” if vendors are not guessing at the budget. In many cases the government agency simply doesn’t know what the budget should be. I get that not everyone knows what a budget should be if advertising or marketing is not what you do every day. Again, that is why a trusted advisor is needed. And you don’t get one of those if you don’t follow the right process to determine that.
The reality is that “best value” is best measured by lining up competitive bids based on experience, trustworthiness, deliverables, value and rapport. Yes, rapport. Through a rigorous interview process (phone or in person), all of that can be determined. Often, rapport is developed through meetings and discussions which should be integral to the RFP process. The choice often becomes very, very clear through this time spent. If budget transparency is an issue, asking vendors to work to lower that budget or bring added value is commonplace.
What all this leads to is the fact that this lack of process and transparency too often leads to government agencies hiring the worst partner possible. Too often the budget number alone determines their choice. With that thinking, what kind of car would they buy – one with no air conditioning, no power windows, no bumper, etc. You get it . . .
If this sounds like sour grapes, it is not. You see, I am concerned for the work I see being put out after these RFPs we do not respond to come out. This is not the case every time, of course. But too often the goals are not achieved and our tax dollars are misspent. I am less concerned about the tax dollars than the fact that these agencies have very important missions that many Americans depend upon to live better, healthier lives. Better decision making is needed or citizens will continue to suffer.
Trying to change government thinking is a waste of time. At least, metaphorically, that is what reading Don Quixote taught me in college. However, like Don Quixote, when I see a windmill my dander gets up. It is easy to say things can’t change. But maybe a crazy guy on an old horse with a passion for doing right might start the wheel in motion. Maybe?
Eric J. Hirschhorn is a principal at bloomfield knoble. For 17 years he has helped lead the Dallas-based advertising agency from start up to becoming a premier, full-service agency whose clients include some of the most influential companies in America. Eric lives to spend time with his family, to work and to travel the world in search of unique fishing adventures.