More disdain for pushy RFPing, this time against General Mills

I’ve mentioned this before in other places but Fortune 100 RFPing can be really onerous for agencies. For one, it’s a lengthy process, requiring your best talent and taking them out of action for weeks sometimes. Second, it usually involves travel, which is always expensive, so tack that on. Sometimes, especially for creative pitches, it involves very ornate experiential stuff (which for me will always be exemplified by the L’Oreal UK pitch from several years ago, for which WPP turned an agency into a spa, basically – not that it stuck, because L’Oreal is in review again). I’ve personally been on at least two pitches that easily cost the agency $100K, soup to nuts, and the teams I was on ended up winning neither of them.

Now, General Mills is getting some pushback from it’s RFP recipients, in part for “…asking agencies to pitch for free and to relinquish control of the creative that they present.” That’s sort of blandly put, but what it means is (a) General Mills will not reimburse the agency for any costs they incur over the course of the pitch (which would otherwise help moderate that $100K+ number I mentioned earlier) and (b) whatever ideas the agency comes up with to convince General Mills to hire them become the intellectual property of General Mills.

Which is very cute. There is a things that companies sometimes do where they hold a pretend RFP, solicit all kinds of ideas (sometimes brand new creative, sometimes full on campaigns and media plans for a year) and then…. not hire anyone. Then they hand over all the top-drawer, professionally packaged ideas to their in-house moops and say “ok moops, do this.” It’s incredibly disingenuous and leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of the agencies that tried to earn these companies’ ad business in good faith.

But, what General Mills is doing is not new. Most global clients will have at least some troubling details in their RFPs, mostly because they know they can. Procurement departments started having a voice in the selection process over ten years ago, and that voice was one in which creativity and forward thinking took a distant back seat to cost – in fact, more than one pitch I’ve participated in, cost was the single most important concern. Which for an agency soliciting a global client, usually means: how far can we take a loos on the primary business without bankrupting ourselves, and how much can we make outside of the master service agreement and scope to build back a margin decent enough to keep the teams servicing these (often demanding) clients in business? Companies have (rightly, no question) accused agencies of double dipping, etc but sometimes, this kind of behavior is in part why that happens.

I’ve been party to a few instances where agencies have seen the terms of the RFP or requirements for pitching and said: no thanks. It’s a difficult decision to make, but sometimes it is a good decision to make. I’ve been on teams – understaffed, overworked, constantly over-managed by an executive tier that was hyper-sensitive to ever dollar – that bought into these restrictions, and it’s always been a short-term game. People leave the team, the works suffers and becomes robotic, there is a constant level of ambient contentiousness that permeates the relationship. It will never happen, but it’s sometimes pleasant to think: what if they threw an RFP and nobody came?

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