How the request for proposal became a vehicle for the misappropriation of someone else’s work.
Independent event professionals and other meeting suppliers have long been plagued with requests for proposals that want them to lay out every detail, from venue to centerpiece, for free. Then, instead of landing the business, they find themselves losing the bid and seeing their ideas come to life at the hands of the lowest bidder or, possibly even more galling, by in-house staffers.
Sharon Bonner, founder and CEO of Bright Ideas Event Agency, finally hit the end of her rope about a month ago. The final straw for the 34-year veteran, award-winning event producer was when she found out she had lost two large contracts because she refused to give away detailed ideas for free in response to a request for proposal.
“It is not right,” she said in a LinkedIn post on the all-too-common practice of asking for complete design details in an event request for proposal (RFP). “It shouldn’t be asked of us.” The 104 commenters who have responded so far wholeheartedly agree with her. Clients who insist on getting every detail of how an event will be designed from multiple planners and then turn around, take their pick of the best ideas, and give them to the lowest bidder are not savvy cost-savers. Instead, they are committing, or at least aiding and abetting, the wholesale theft of ideas. And it has to stop, say, outraged event-planning third parties.
Why Is This Still Happening?
Of course, this isn’t a new problem. It has been a scourge of the industry for as long as most veteran planners, destination management companies (DMCs), florists, caterers, and others can remember. But it does, at least anecdotally, appear to have blown up as the industry booms back post-pandemic and companies desperate to recoup their losses try to convince themselves that it’s just the cost of doing business these days. Of course, it’s easy to blame new entrants to the market who are desperate for business and don’t know any better than to give away the store in hopes of landing the contract. But it’s also perpetuated by those who have been around long enough to know better but feel they have to go TMI on their specs to stay competitive, said commenters on Bonner’s post.
Not only is it ethically loathsome to steal people’s creativity and then give it to the lowest bidder, but clients who think they are saving money are driving up costs in the long run, said Matthew Byrne, CSEP, founder and president of Byrne Production Services. After all, even if it costs the client nothing to get all those free specs, it costs the event planning company or DMC time and resources to pull that all together. So for every one in 10 bids they win, they have to find a way to bundle in a markup to cover the costs of the other nine bids they didn’t get. “This both destroys the actual value and adds inflated value,” he said.
How to Sell Your Services Without Giving Too Much Away
Have a process and stick with it. When clients start asking for potential pipe-and-drape color-level of specs, tell them you can’t possibly give them the details without first understanding the event goals and objectives, the budget, and all the rest. And if you want to work with a professional who can provide the holistic and strategic perspective you need to achieve those goals, you need to start with a contract. As Byrne explained, “If the client asks how much it costs to design a cool stage, I say I can’t answer that question right now. But I can tell you we’re really good at designing stages that are cool, cost-effective, and will hit your objectives.”
Consider charging a creative consultation fee that will be credited to the project once you’re hired. One commenter on Bonner’s post said he charges a fee for up-front work, then “buys it back” by taking it off the invoice when he lands the contract.
Consider asking for a “kill fee.” Another commenter on Bonner’s post suggested a similar idea that’s being used in the advertising industry — charging a fee upfront that, if the company didn’t end up hiring that agency, the client had to pay that kill fee for time spent developing the proposal.
Instead of giving it all away, show why you are qualified to handle their event beautifully. For the initial RFP, go ahead and show your credentials. Provide testimonials. Give them an overview of how your process works. Some event professionals will give a free half-hour or hour consultation to answer questions, explain their process, and perhaps even conduct an initial event assessment. And it’s best if you can have an actual conversation, rather than just writing out what you think they need to know, said Adrian Segar, facilitator, founder of Conferences that Work, and author of three books on meeting design. “There’s no guarantee, but it’s better for me to spend a half hour learning about their needs than for me to spend half an hour writing something that may not even be relevant to what they want.” But after that, they need to sign the contract before you go any further. Those who value professionalism will want to learn more. Those who want the free specs explain that’s just not how you do business. This leads us to…
Just say no. The rule of thumb, said Segar, is to not do significant creative work for free. “The creativity is the most important aspect of your work — why would you give that away?” But, as Bonner and many of her peers have found out the hard way, you may lose clients when you refuse to provide every detail of how you would design the event. As Byrne said, “Conservatively, 85 percent of high-value prospects disappear from our radar after we explain our process. But I don’t want those 85 percent who want to know exactly how the lanyards will look and which limos you can have on standby. I want the 15 percent who understand the value of what we’re doing. It’s hard to leave that revenue on the table, but you have to be willing to say no.” While even the most seasoned pros can be fooled occasionally, most say you can sense when a client is just trying to game you to get the most they can for the least work on their part.
Just say yes — to clients you know won’t rip you off. If you have existing relationships with clients you trust, then it may be OK to do a little creative work on spec. But be cautious. Your trustworthy contact may no longer work there, or new financial or other business pressures could drive the client in directions you wouldn’t expect based on your prior experience. And if they do burn you, remember that the next time they come around with an RFP in hand. As one commenter who works at a speaker agency said, she learned after having a planner take her non-exclusive speaker suggestion and book him through a different agency, “Now I only work with planners who stick with me, not stick it in my back.”
Beware of clients who string you along without actually signing the contract. Bonner once had a client who negotiated with her for months, teasing out creative tidbits along the way. While she was under the assumption that she had the business, they just never quite got around to signing the paperwork, despite her repeated requests. So when another client came along looking like they might do something similar, she first had them sign a contract to do the initial budgeting work they wanted. They did — and then went on to contract with her company to do the entire event. “It’s about setting the ground rules for the relationship,” said Bonner.
Look at what other creative industries are doing and see what the events community can learn from their efforts. “If you went to a major marketing firm and asked them to put together their best ideas on spec, you’d get laughed out of the building,” Byrne said.
For example, the certifying body for the certified public accountant (CPA) field prohibits CPAs from giving away their work for free. Byrne said that CPAs who get caught breaking that rule risk losing their professional designation. “Our professional organizations should be advocating for us to our customer base, like the CPA association does, rather than just market designations to us. That’s something that’s lacking in our industry,” he said.
Remember that you are selling expertise, not commodities. If your company is all about developing a volume of business at all costs, by all means, give it away and hope you make it up in volume. But if you are focused on strategic design that will truly wow your clients’ attendees and other stakeholders, you won’t want to join the race to the bottom. As Byrne said, “A Porsche dealership doesn’t care what a Honda dealership is doing to sell cars. They concentrate on the Porsche experience, design, and value — not how it compares to selling an economy car.”
And clients who think they can hand Porsche specs to Honda and drive away with something Porsche-like on the cheap? They may pull off a reasonable facsimile a few times, but ultimately, they’ll get what they paid for — and stakeholders won’t need to look under the hood to know the difference.