Request for Proposal: Worth the Gamble? Facts You Need to Determine the Odds

By Susan Reilly 

According to The Wizard of Odds, the probability of an overall win in blackjack is 46.36%. While the variables associated with winning a new piece of business through participation in a competitive Request for Proposal (RFP) differ greatly, identifying as many factors as possible upfront can help you determine the probability of a winning hand and whether or not your team should gamble or respectfully decline. RFPs are extremely time consuming and can either jolt a team to a jackpot-high or losing-in- Las-Vegas-low.

As public relations experts with a long history of being part of the pitching process, here are a few tips to help consultants in any sector calculate whether or not you want to go through the "crap" of throwing your dice on the table, or if your time is better spent at a table where your team can yell “hit me” all night long with better chances of coming out ahead.

Your Competitors: While not every prospective client will tell you how many players have been asked to participate, my Italian mother always said, “You don’t ask you don’t get right?” If you don’t get, you can push a bit harder and ask for the number of contenders. If the answer is eight to 12 for a small budget and an RFP with a big ask, perhaps this isn’t the best use of your team’s time. Additionally, it is always perplexing when prospects send an RFP to a full deck of contenders since it is equally time consuming for them. Much "shortlisting" can be done through research and industry resources. We know sending the RFP out to several firms is is common, but call me crazy-over engineered and highly inefficient.  

Shoe-in Contenders: If there are just two or three other competitors politics aside, the odds of winning are better. Just do as much research as possible to determine if your contenders already have a shoe-in.  If there’s a chance you are being asked to participate just so the team can attempt to demonstrate to leadership that they objectively looked at three firms carefully consider your odds. While your team may never truly know the answer, go with your gut. For example, perhaps the prospect was once on the agency side and they now have an opportunity to work with their former firm in a new capacity, either cracking the whip or rubbing elbows with their old colleagues. That scenario might be hard to win.

Quality of RFP: So much can be revealed by the “ask” in an RFP.  If it is succinct with clear objectives and a detailed outline of how the prospect wants you to respond, this is a good indication of the sophistication level of the people you may someday call your client. A poorly written RFP can be interpreted as an opportunity for your firm to bring clarity and counsel to a client, or a red flag that the experience may be challenging. Sometimes if the RFP asks for more than capabilities, they are really looking for ideas so you want to be cautious and determine if offering intellectual property for free is worth it.

Agency Profile: Many times a prospect, especially one who is new to using outside resources for support, really does not know what they want or need.  For example, the RFP might call for a global presence yet the prospect’s short- and long-term plans focus only in the United States. You should delve into the thought behind seeking a global firm and determine what aspects of an expansive network they perceive as meeting their needs. 

Meet Face-to-Face: Written RFPs suck. We all know that. And, if you don’t know the prospect they are, even worse. Perhaps you or your team just won’t feel the love, or the spark will be so great that you are confident that a long love affair is ahead. Chemistry is the key to any great agency/client relationship and while your narrative might show your firm’s brilliance and resources, real success comes from the dynamics of the relationship. And both prospects and agencies have a choice to enter into that first dance. 

Decision-Makers: In the information gathering phase, strive to have your discussions with the decision makers. This will help you prioritize and package your capabilities in the most effective way should you decide to respond to the RFP. You are only as good as the information you get so do your best to get it straight from the top. A great deal can be lost in translation. Draft all of your questions and let them serve as the structure of a call, or ask for answers in writing especially if you don’t have access to the decision makers as part of the fact finding phase. 

Budget: It is vital to get budget parameters. If the client has a $50,000 budget but the RFP outlines a program that would require closer to $1 million, it is best for everyone to know upfront to avoid wasting time. Some prospects are hesitant to reveal budgets. Sometimes it is because the program hasn’t been funded yet or they need guidance on allocation of dollars to achieve specific goals. The more information you get about available funds, the more likely you will craft a response that is realistic and aligned with available resources. Or, perhaps your team will decide that pursuing this opportunity is just not the right fit.

Remember, you have the right to respectfully decline. In fact, your prospect will most likely respect you more for your integrity and careful assessment. If the deck is stacked in your favor, place your bets. If not, fold.