Over the past two years we have become much better at winning formal tenders. Many public and private sector organisations use online procurement portals to manage the process of selecting suppliers for higher value goods and services. We know this is their preferred way to work, so we can either get good at it or not. They aren’t going to change, so we must.
But, our heart sinks every time we begin a new tender process that is managed through an online portal. Why?
Because there’s no attempt to build any kind of relationship. When you submit information or project proposals through a portal you cannot talk to anyone and build a level of understanding or rapport. It’s cold and clinical which is everything that a creative agency is not. Also, most of the generic procurement platforms are so badly designed and so non-intuitive that it makes us angry!
Many of the Invitation To Tender (ITT) documents we receive are also woeful. It takes us days to decipher what the client actually wants, when a conversation or brief meeting would quickly clear that up and help both parties to see if there is mutual understanding and a desire to work together. In fact many times we help prospective clients to write better briefs through engaging with them well before they issue the ITT.
The time it takes to respond is often out of kilter with the value of the project. Try as we might, we haven’t yet been able to create a standard response template. It’s always bespoke. We have just completed a tender response that took four days to complete, responding to 12 very bespoke and detailed questions. We know that there are probably 10 to 20 other agencies also putting in the same amount of work. It just seems such an unnecessary waste. We often wonder if the poor person in procurement who has to evaluate 20 or so tender responses really understands what they are buying, because people, talent and creativity cannot always be assessed by a tick box process. Especially when that process has clearly been designed to buy paperclips!
Sometimes, there isn’t even a project awarded at the end of the experience. We recently took part in a tender process for the Defence Equipment and Support agency (DE&S), the body that procures all goods and services on behalf of our armed forces. This was managed through a portal. After submitting a complex tender that took no less than 5 days to complete, we were shortlisted and invited to make a presentation. We were instructed at very short notice that we had to attend on a set date and time. We moved heaven and earth to be there.
Three months later we still had not been advised about the outcome of the tender despite many inquiries. Eventually we received a brief email, not even signed off by a human-being, explaining that no contract was going to be awarded and the tender process was therefore at an end. We had guessed as much! What a sorry, sorry waste of everyone’s time. I haven’t got the energy to write a letter of complaint and doubt it would make a difference. But I never, ever want to work with an organisation again that treats people and small businesses in this way.
Of course formal tendering processes can work and we are delighted when we win. But, there has to be a better way to manage the process. Here’s our suggestion:
It starts with a clear brief, providing background context and a clear explanation of what the project needs to achieve.
Then, invite agencies to submit their credentials so the client can identify potential partners that have the appropriate skills and experience. This would involve agencies submitting (mostly) standard credentials. Clients should know what kind of support they are looking for and they should be prepared to put some effort in at this stage to narrow down the field to a shortlist of say three to four agencies at most.
Those shortlisted agencies should be invited to attend a face-to-face briefing session where they have the opportunity to ask more searching questions. Both client and agency will be able to work out if they feel they can work together successfully. An hour or so per agency is not too much to ask surely? The agencies may even help to write a better brief.
Agencies can then submit a detailed and fully costed proposal knowing that they have a reasonable chance of success.
The client may be able to award the contract at this stage, but if they are undecided between two agencies, then by all means invite them in for a final presentation.
The responsibility is surely on large client organisations to run fair and smart procurement processes. The responsibility lies with agencies to provide really good information to help clients create effective shortlists and ultimately select an appropriate partner. Let’s not waste each other’s time.
The best clients and agencies build lasting relationships at an organisational and individual level, based on trust, commitment, transparency, shared values and fair reward. How can you buy that through an online portal?
We know that portals are here to stay and they can help to streamline the procurement process. We just hope that they don’t try to replace the human relationships between agency and client that are fundamental to producing the best creative work.