Agency Executives Seek to Improve State’s RFP Process for Local Creatives
A Better Way
By Elizabeth Schuman
Feb 01, 2018
Call it a bounty or a curse. Responding to a request for proposal (RFP) from an organization or government agency might lead to significant income, often over the course of years. Or, submitting that same RFP might lead to thousands of dollars lost and hundreds of hours wasted.
For creative services firms, such as advertising and marketing agencies, the subjective nature of their work adds another wrinkle: The RFP’s rigid, structured approach asks for upfront creative thinking. “Procurement departments purchase products and may not understand how to buy creative services,” says Diane Devaney, president, Devaney & Associates. “We’re asked to provide spec creative. You wouldn’t ask a construction firm to provide the bridge before getting the bid.
“There has to be a way to compare apples to apples.”
That gulf between tangible product and creative output led Devaney, along with Barb Clapp, CEO of Clapp Communications, and Karen Killian, president, LMD Agency, to meet with representatives from the Maryland Department of Commerce in June 2017. All have successfully bid on and secured state contracts.
Their goal was to teach the state’s procurement officials about the distinct differences between purchasing creative services such as marketing, advertising, public relations and graphic design versus purchasing goods and services such as furniture or interior painting. The three Baltimore-based advertising leaders met with Jimmy Rhee, special secretary of small, minority and women business affairs, and Jamie Tomaszewski, chief of procurement. “We opened channels of communication,” says Killian. “We were able to share feedback about the RFP process.”
For example, one challenge of the RFP process is that a work plan is required with submission and the bidder is asked to do the work as part of the process. The cost can be prohibitive for smaller firms. The process discourages local talent from applying. “I know of many firms and people who do not bid on RFPs because it costs too much money, takes too much time and is not successful,” says Clapp.
Of equal importance, they sought to highlight the role of Maryland-based small businesses, such as their agencies, in securing work with the state. Often, they noticed state contracts for marketing services going to out-of-state firms or one firm winning multiple contracts.
Clapp lists the benefits of supporting Baltimore’s creative firms. “We know the Baltimore marketplace where we are promoting the service or product. We are familiar with Baltimore organizations, and we know the players. Also, there is a very good chance that our firms are less expensive than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles,” she says. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t as good. Our firms have won a ton of awards for our work.”
Their June meeting followed Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2016 focus on revamping how billions of state contracts are bid and awarded. The Dec. 2016 report, “Report of the Commission to Modernize State Procurement,” specified 57 recommendations to modernize the state’s procurement system, focused on technology, the bidding process and staff training. More than 90 percent of Maryland’s 580,000 businesses are small businesses and nearly 70 percent are minority- or women-owned businesses.
So, what’s happened?
Not much and not yet, say the advertising executives. Still, the group remains hopeful, even as they respond to existing RFPs and suggest improvements.
Devaney recalled a recent RFP for full branding, design, print, marketing collateral and website design for state agency’s employment and training program. Her concerns were the scope of work required for the RFP, including listing strategies, methodology, techniques, ROI metrics, timelines and project management plans, as well as a limited English proficiency implementation plan, economic benefit to the state, last five years of state contracts and financial capability. The RFP was issued on Aug. 11 and due Sept. 1, with a pre-proposal conference on Aug. 22.
“This gave us seven working days to prepare a response that we estimated would take a minimum of 60 hours to create,” she says. The logistics of sending the RFP added more time. The RFP asked for an original, multiple copies and electronic versions, including a searchable PDF with redacted copy, and materials prepared in separate volumes for technical and financial requirements— all of which would take an entire day to prepare. By email, Devaney shared her concerns with Tomaszewski.
“My company chose not to respond. This is yet one more example of a very poorly developed RFP for creative services,” she wrote.
Chief of Procurement Tomaszewski agrees that there is a learning curve. “It’s a training issue. We are working with agencies to help them become cognizant of what to ask for in a proposal for the creative process. We are training agencies to do it better.”
She points out the state’s biannual senior procurement advisory meeting as one way to provide information and training for agencies and personnel to learn the best way to submit request for proposals. “Our goal is to have standard processes all agencies can follow for creative services.”
Agencies that issue RFPs would do well to remember that marketing exists to solve a problem. “Creative firms understand the product, create messaging about the product, identify the target and create the best way to deliver the message to the target and set the goals,” says Clapp.
An RFP for creative services that asks for samples is a good start, but needs to do more. “A pretty ad that doesn’t sell is not effective” says Devaney. “You want to ask for case studies that are results-based. You want to talk to other clients who can vouch for the work and the results.”
Killian added that the group anticipates change happening slowly as state personnel learn more about how to evaluate proposals for creative services. “We are continuing to figure out new ways to work with the state and improve the procurement process to make it more equitable to our services.”
The agency executives and state procurement officials recognize these are the first steps toward a better RFP process for creative firms. “The meeting was very helpful and we continue to look for feedback to make the process work better,” says Tomaszewski. “Maryland is open for business but we need to work with businesses to do that.” I95