These days, it seems that every other Request for Proposal is asking for speculative work. We enjoy receiving RFPs as much as the next firm; we just don’t think requiring creative companies to provide specific recommendations to a prospect’s marketing challenges – based on information gleaned in an RFP – is fruitful. Or ethical, for that matter.
I recognize that developing free creative ideas is, in fact, expected in some parts of this industry. Especially when millions of account dollars are at stake. But most local Requests for Proposals are measured in thousands of dollars.
When a proposal recipient is required to demonstrate creative abilities in order to solve a prospect’s particular needs – as defined by the RFP – it’s called spec work. Spec work might include sharing specific strategies, ideas, concepts, or designs. This practice is something that the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), comprising over 22,000 designers from more than sixty countries, strongly opposes. So it’s not a personal thing.
Unfortunately, all the information required to thoughtfully respond to a specific marketing challenge is never provided in an RFP. Which means any firm that chooses to participate in this process is simply offering up superficial solutions. They may look fine on the surface, but they’re never going to get at the real problem. Some firms think that by asking follow-up questions directly to the prospect you can overcome this information deficit. But you can’t. And then, of course, the RFP authors – to promote the idea of a reasonably fair process – invariably share their follow-up answers with all recipients. You can see how it starts to get a little murky.
Even if an RFP did provide all of the information needed to arrive at creative solutions, the firm willing to spend the most amount of free time developing their thin ideas generally wins out. Now I’m all for firms demonstrating passion (and hard work) to garner new business. But do you really want to hire the firm with the most amount of free time on its hands? If I’m on a selection committee, I’d simply be looking for the best firm to handle my project – which is usually a very busy one.
Those in the position to develop and write RFPs need to rethink their intentions. You don’t need to see spec work to find the right fit. You just need to trust the right process. Respondents should be asked to demonstrate how their collective experience, knowledge, and approach to your assignment will benefit your project. Asking for schedules and costs is perfectly acceptable, which is why a Request for Qualifications is a better approach. Once you’ve short-listed firms, invite them in for one-on-one interviews. Then ask the right questions of each firm. Good firms will also take the opportunity to ask questions of you. A clear favorite will emerge – and with a working relationship already established.
I’m not sure why companies continue to ask for spec work. I’m guessing it’s mostly because they don’t know any better, not because they’re intentionally trying to treat creative folks like prostitutes (come to think of it, I’ve heard that even hookers negotiate their fees up front). But no matter the reason, the result is the same: they’re selling their projects short and thereby compromising outcomes.
I also don’t understand why creative firms in our community continue to respond to and embrace this unethical practice. Maybe offering eye candy is the only way they can win business – by outdoing their competitors. But you should be looking for firms that can outthink the competition. Then, and only then, will you see results.