Ending the Never-Ending Chase of RFPs

I was having coffee with a friend a few days ago and he was asking me for some advice about the direction his business should take. He’s a talented film producer who owns a company with an equally talented director. They’ve made short films, feature length films, won film awards, had their work shown at the prestigious Cannes festival and done some limited work with brands.

You can probably guess which has been the most profitable.

So my friend, knowing that I work in the agency world, was looking for some advice.

“We’re just tired of chasing after RFPs,” he said, sipping his incredible smelling latte. “We’re starting over every time and we’re limited by a brief. There’s no feedback.”

He’s right, of course, and its a challenge creative people – and big agencies – face every day. You have a bunch of talent. You have vision. You have an idea, but you don’t know how to make something work. You get put in a pile of ‘vendors’ and you never really know when your next piece of business is coming.

I’ve been a writer since I was a teenager. I’ve written everything from press releases for an industrial crane company to a memoir on creativity for a rock star. And I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.

First, chasing RFPs for an individual or small group creative project is always a no-win, zero sum proposition. No matter how talented you are. No matter how long your resume, it will always come down to two things: price and control. You are pitted against equally, greater or lesser talents in a bidding war. You end up settling for less than what you want and all the passion you might had for the project is sucked out of you. And if a projected is RFP’d, chances are pretty good the direction and vision have already been set by someone else. You become a factory machine, a means of production, not a creative partner.

That’s what I mean by no-win. You make less than you deserve for work that’s not yours, which you have no passion for. It can be a good way to start, but once you have a resume, portfolio or reel, stop doing it. RFPs are for beginners and people for whom work and heart are completely separate.

Next, I’ve learned the most valuable asset a creator has is enthusiasm; naked, blind, driving enthusiasm. I had an experience this summer that proves my point. There’s a designer I really admire. I love his work. I love his ethos. I love his products. One day, I was thinking about how much I admire the way he has handled his business and decided to reach out. I sent him an e-mail through his website, introduced myself, told him how much I loved his work and that I wanted to do something creative with him. He contacted me back and we ended up on the phone within the week. He told me he checked me out, respected my moxie for reaching out and wanted to know what I had in mind. Truth is, I didn’t know, but in the course of the conversation, he revealed he was working on a book and by the end of the talk he revealed a need for someone to write about something from a different perspective. I told him I would give it a shot, went back to the office and banged out a chapter. He loved it. It will be in his book that comes out next year.

The designer offered to pay me, but I turned him down. I told him it was my pleasure to write something for him and that I would be in touch when I had a project in mind for the two of us.

Lastly, I’ve learned that a creative can never go wrong by not waiting to be asked. The first book I ghostwrote came from me writing a sample chapter without being asked. I had heard a friend was working on a book, was having a problem with the ghostwriter he had hired and I took it as an opportunity. I read up on his business, made some educated guesses and wrote a chapter – all within a couple of days. By the end of that week, I had a contract to write the book and the other ghost writer was fired.

I told all of this to my friend over coffee and it, apparently, changed his perspective. He and his partner have designed a business plan based on doing the work they want to do for the people and brands they want to work with – those people and brands they are genuinely enthusiastic about. They are going to lean in for a little while, but no more so than the effort it would take to chase RFPs. And when I spoke to him a couple days later, he told me they have never been more enthusiastic about their prospects.

Creatives need to love the work they do. In order to do that, they need to feel like they add value to a person’s life or a brand’s business. How can you really add value when you’re chasing RFPs?

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