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Should clients pay for proposals?

Considering how much time goes into it, should clients pay participating agencies a fee for tender and request for proposals submissions? We debate whether the industry should change its approach.

624 hours.

That’s 83 working days, or 16½ working weeks.

It’s also enough time to travel from London to Edinburgh and back 78 times by train; or to fly to Hawaii and back 32 times. And while you travel, you could read the Complete Works of Shakespeare 27 times, or work your way through the complete Harry Potter series at least ten times.


That’s how many working hours (many of them invested at evenings and weekends) that the White Clarke Creative team devoted to one proposal. We reviewed the brief, collated reams of technical information and devised an imaginative and cohesive response that included creative ideas, detailed costings and designing and comprehensive marketing plan. The client went with another supplier.

It’s the cost of doing business, right?

Well, yes, up to a point. But does that make it right? Should the expectation of effort and investment change between client and agency, or is it too ingrained within our industry? Is it fair to expect a client to pay for work that they may not go ahead with?

I think that most people who work in marketing and creative are, by nature, people-pleasers. It’s innate in us to want to help: to solve problems, prove ourselves and demonstrate our strengths, willingness and commitment to our clients’ needs. Which means that we can sometimes be guilty of giving too much in our eagerness to demonstrate our people-to-people credentials. Yet there are times when meeting even the minimum requirements of a tender document can stretch an agency to capacity, let alone give them time to demonstrate the creative flair and resourcefulness that are its underpinning strengths. Client companies are under increasing pressure, too, to meet increasing legislative requirements and industry standards. Their budgets are being squeezed, and increasing procurement involvement has led to more complex tender processes.

There is no easy answer.

Divide and conquer

There is certainly huge value to both parties in going through the pre-tender RFQ process. Clients can pre-qualify agencies and check that they have the necessary resources, capability and skills for their project. And agencies can respond quickly with (mostly) standard answers that won’t tie up the time of valuable team members such as the Creative Director. This ‘sorting the wheat from the chaff’ means that clients are naturally shortlisting the agencies that they believe will work collaboratively and efficiently with them. If more companies separated their tenders into RFQs and RFPs, a great deal of time could potentially be saved on both sides.

Whose IP is it, anyway?

There are also times when companies decide to use the Intellectual property (IP) from responses regardless of who submitted it. Agencies currently have little or no protection from their work being hijacked and used without payment.

Yet if a client contracts to agencies for the proposal, they could legitimately use all the intellectual property provided without a problem – so I’m surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. This way companies can also benefit from the expertise of smaller but no less capable agencies that wouldn’t otherwise be able to spare the time or resource needed for a demanding pitching process.

So yes, in principle, clients should pay participating agencies a small fee of some kind for their tender and RFP submissions (unless, of course, the response isn’t up to scratch). Next time you put together an RFP document, take a little time to ponder what its worth, and let us know what you think. Unless things change to create a fairer system, it’s likely that the debate will continue for some time to come.


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