Designing RFPs 101

mvc3_disintegration_6202Marvel vs Capcom 3; Page Disintegration    Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Promote the game’s release in an interesting way


Requests for proposals (RFPs) are just like crowdsourcing projects but with bigger budgets. RFPs are sent out by clients, agencies or media buyers inviting multiple firms to respond to a specific brief. Just like crowdsourcing, the work submitted for the proposal is not paid for and compensation is only given to the winning submitter(s).

In the design community RFPs are not regarded as ‘real’ projects and thus are looked down on. The fact that the design work usually goes into a PowerPoint document further diminishes this view. Several recruiters even told me that they almost never see designs for RFPs in portfolios.

I regard RFPs as quite ‘real’ since they win most new business in both the online and print world. One account manager suggested to me that 80% of new business comes in from RFPs. In this post I’ll use my experience of working on RFPs and pitches in many positions since 1993 to illuminate how RFPs and pitches have a the hidden world of creativity, an issue that effects the whole online community. I’ll also examine how RFPs normally gets overlooked by the design community and while I work at CBS Interactive I will detail what I personally feel are best practices for responding to them.

Jambox; Jam Anywhere   Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Show the Jambox is wireless


I see less and less RFPs merely showing banner ad placement and increasingly see RFPs asking for a ‘big idea’ and custom creative (rather than an off-the-shelf solution). These big ideas should be fun to do, create portfolio pieces and a great ad for the company submitting them.

There’s only one snag. There’s usually only somewhere between 2 and 5 days to give a full response, sometimes only 24 hours by the time it hits the studio. As a result the focus often becomes getting some kind of response back to the client on time, a bit like a Top Chef Challenge. Often junior designers are used ‘to knock something out’ so that seniors are not taken off ‘real’ bill paying projects. Less time + less experience = lesser results.

I believe that RFPs should have senior people assigned to them. It helps that I manage a team of people who can handle projects that need a quick turnaround. Who better to come up big ideas under pressure, the RFPs themselves acting as as a pitch for the team’s abilities.

Corning Glass: CNET Made In Glass   Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Turn this interesting movie into an ad


For an average ad campaign or pitch there would be time to think through many strategies and options, all honed down in rounds of revisions. Since RFPs are not scrutinized through this process a lot of independent thought is needed. Whatever you go through in the time frame available so do the other 10-20 responders (sometimes even as much as 50 according to Jason Haddad Group Strategy Director at OMD – responsible for commissioning many RFPs for Intel).

Jason says, “…time isn’t always what creates a good Proposal though … Agencies that are more transparent with the information they share tend to get better Proposals than vague RFPs that ask for things like “unique, never been done before ideas” with no definition or indication of what success looks like.”

The RFP document acts as the brief, outlining the client’s audience and strategy to reach them. They are worth reading fully as a few key clues are usually buried in the document, as are the mandatories, desired results and metrics for measuring them. Conversations with the account/sales teams usually put some much needed flesh on the bares bones provided. As a result a good kick-off meeting is necessary to narrow down confusion and clarify what needs to be done. From there look at the website for more clues. Googling the subject and checking a few blogs will turn up nuggets of information or images.

All this is to build a picture quickly in your head of what is being asked for and how the client thinks. This will help form a gut feeling from which you will think of a big idea or two before launching into a whirlwind of activity in the countdown to the deadline. Just remember everyone else receiving the RFP is in the same boat as you.

Logitech Harmony: Revealing The Inner Harmony   Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Emphasize the harmony a universal remote brings.


The client (usually an agency) wants to have something new and exciting to show both their boss or client. To do that they need something that stands out. As a Media Director for a Fortune 500 Tech company who declined to be named says: “We also think ‘how can we pitch this to our client.’ Just like a vendor, our job is to sell the program through to a client, so we’ve got to be able to sell the idea as good if not better than the vendor that responds to the RFP.”

Think of the interview process. If everyone is the same, a person who juggles swords in their free time is the one you’d most want to interview. Likewise RFPs need a really big idea to stand out. RFPs can be whatever you want them to be (as long as they are relevant to the brief) and exist in a magical land of creativity. If the response wins the business the client may change it later on anyway.

So just how do you come up with a big idea in such a short timeframe? Luckily there isn’t a pre-set right answer for RFPs. If there was the client wouldn’t be sending out requests for ideas to so many people. Usually there are some key words buried in the text of the RFP document to use as inspiration. After that the sky is the limit.

Like all advertising the key to RFPs is to create a small narrative. Just like short stories the key is to make a big impact in a short amount to time. You’re not writing a novel. In the Logitech Harmony example above we didn’t have much to go on. Parts of the page are switched off by the universal (harmonious) remote to reveal the calming waterfall scene (creating inner harmony).

Once you have your big idea give it a name that sums it up and a 10 second elevator pitch. If you can’t do that the idea might be too complicated for an RFP as these rarely get presented in person. The two designers of the agency Number 17 mentioned this process when they said they won a huge piece of MTV business with their ‘Uranus’ (your anus) concept. The people at MTV laughed about it for weeks.

Webroot: Parting The Clouds On Security   Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Promote Webroot’s cloud security software.


People love the sites they use daily to read news, gossip, entertainment or gather information. They tolerate the ads that appear next to the content. They don’t like intrusive takeover ads that prevent them from using the site unless it’s for something really interesting (to them).

Although online concepts can have strange things happen to the page it should be used only if it is a natural fit for the client or product. The strange format alone is not enough to keep the readership interested. It should give the concept a chance to make a big splash in the few seconds you have to tell the story. I have an idea using an unusual format I check with Rich Media, Ad Ops or our developers to see if something is possible. I’ll worry about the logistics of making it happen if we win the business.

New formats or disruptive behaviors are something that Jason Hadad, feels is important: “Almost every RFP I’ve sent out in the last 2 years have required at least some level of custom creative. In all honesty most of the time publishers have unique capabilities that we want to try and take advantage of in order to have some level of breakthrough with their audience. Creative agencies don’t have the bandwidth to develop custom units for every campaign.”

In the Webroot example above there was very little detail about the product as it hadn’t been released yet. All we had to go on is the fact that it was cloud based security so I thought about the homepage falling apart as though it was attacked by a virus. A cloud then spreads to restore order. It’s a simple idea brought to life with good design and a unique page format.

Dolby: Dance Trance   Art Director/Designer: Rick Byrne
Brief: Potential online component of the existing ‘Insist on Dolby’ campaign.


So you have a big idea and only a few hours left to design it. Now what?

Since the finished creative pieces for an RFP will most likely be shrunk down into a PowerPoint document the key is to be big and bold in order to sell the sizzle not the steak (to paraphrase David Ogilvy the advertising guru). It’s a bit like stage make-up, it may look overdone up close but on stage it makes a big impact.

Design: The creative should be a little larger than usual as they won’t be seen at their true size. Imagery and colors should be bright too. Headlines should be big and bold. They should capture the imagination and sum up the concept as any substantiating body copy may not get read.

Assets: Since RFPs are usually speculative the best way to get logos and other imagery is by scouring the web or checking out (an aggregate site that hosts ads that appear on Google). The client’s website will often have more copy or images. Desktop wallpapers are remarkably handy as are images leaked by blogs.

Format: Mostly the finished creative will be Jpegs but for animations/storyboarding I use PDFs or animated gifs (see the example throughout this post). I frequently recommend the whole look and feel of the PowerPoint document reflects the client’s branding rather than the company the response is coming from. This approach is a little counter intuitive since most companies want to push their own branding. Using the client’s look and feel wraps your response to the RFP in a more palatable form for the client and shows you understand the brand.

All this needs to be done at speed as there usually isn’t time to change anything later on. Since RFPs are not scrutinized through the usual rounds the first few can be hard because designers are so used to having a specific task with approved assets and clear client direction. That doesn’t mean that you produce of sub par pieces. In fact RFPs are a true test of just how creative you can be under pressure.

hp_servers HP: Cut the Complexity Cord   Art Director/Designer: Vica Filatova
Capabilities pitch: idea to promote the simplicity of integrated server solutions.


After covering how best to respond to RFPs I thought it would be good to look at they are received. To this end I talked to Krista Akeson, previously of OMD where she was responsible for reviewing RFPs for in the following process:

“After all the RFPs are submitted, the Assistant Strategist prints hard copies for everyone on the team. We then have what we called a Planning Party part 1 and part 2. Prior to these parties, every team member is required to read all the proposals, write down any questions they have, and give a tentative grade. It usually takes about 6-9 hours to review and discuss the proposals as a team. During these parties, each submission gets a grade based on a list of criteria and ability to meet the campaign’s objectives. Then, as the number of vendors who make the cut decreases, emails (to clarify details) will likely be sent. As the agency puts together their recommendation to the client, they will need to work out tentative budgets.”

When asked about best practices for responding to RFPs Krista summarized them as this:
“I have reviewed hundreds and hundreds of proposals, and have seen many fantastic units that were never included in recommendations because of budget and timing. With that said, I will say there are several best practices for submitting an RFP:

1) be clear and concise
2) submit at the requested budget level
3) submit in a timely manner
4) be creative
5) tailor ideas to the brand
6) provide case studies
7) use specific language from the RFP
8) be different.”

With regard to the creative part of an RFP response Krista had this to say: “Every single RFP I ever worked on required custom creative…agencies are always asking for big ideas and if this creative idea hits it out of the park and has a reasonable budget, the agency would include it in their presentation (to the end client).” Essentially everyone in the RFP chain is trying to impress the next person in the chain be it their client or boss. Big creative ideas help them do this.

The question has been raised about ideas being used despite not winning the business. When asked what would happen if one submission had a great creative concept and another had good strategy or metrics Krista had this to say:
“Honestly, that scenario happened 90% of the time. If a vendor included a well-thought out, strategic plan in their proposal, but could not execute the idea and/or the creative component, then the proposal was a waste. On the other hand, if a vendor could produce a creative execution that no other vendor’s recommendation could compare, then they definitely would have made the plan and probably would have received the largest budget.”


Now it’s time to look at a specific example that won business (although technically not a regular RFP). Livescribe approached the online versions of NY Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as us for interesting ideas to promote their smartpens. The latter allow a user to write notes and go back to that point on a recorded audio track stored in the pen (see video here). So how do you show that in an ad?

Since it’s very difficult to actually show how the Livescribe pen works in a simple banner ad I knew we needed to show it in action since we couldn’t play sound unless it was user initiated. I came up with the idea of the pen emerging out of regular ads to form a visual narrative as it writes notes on the homepage. Chris Cast, Livescribe’s creative director described this approach as “an excellent way to make our product relevant to the page takeover in a short period of time. Having the smartpen mark up important information on the website is exactly what it’s used for: helping customers find and relive what’s important in their notes…we were highly pleased with the results.”

Livescribe were so impressed they re-worked their campaign budget around making sure they could do the custom creative. It ran over two days and Elizabeth Heinrich, account executive on the project said: “Compared to a standard homepage takeover, the Livescribe takeover outperformed in terms of engagement rate by 3x the normal numbers. With having something more custom, the users really responded and were interested in the product.”

Because the online world loves looking at quantifiable results lets look  at the performance numbers:
– 1,209,022 impressions
– 17,295 engagments
– the first day it ran had a 2.4% click through rate (CTR) and the second day had a 1.74% CTR
– 595 total requests to replay the ad for both dates
– 3% average close rate for both dates – meaning most users watched the overlay


As mentioned before I feel putting more experienced creatives on RFPs gives it a better chance of winning the business. If I had to put a ball park figure for our success rate I would say it is about 25%. They don’t always have to win new business. Sometimes they are door openers and sometimes they keep the conversation going. They can even broaden the client’s idea of how creative they can be for the next time.

There may not be awards for winning RFPs yet they are so prevalent in the industry. In fact they are so omnipresent that there could be scope for freelancers or agencies to develop a niche for responding to RFPs. Despite all this the bottom line when it comes to RFPs is that they are fun, win business and create interesting ‘real’ portfolio pieces.


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