From RFP to termination call

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David Paragamian
David Paragamian

Everyone has heard the old rhetorical question, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”  And while school-age children everywhere will be using that one for a long time, I would like to posit the advertising equivalent of that question and offer my thoughts on an answer. For me, the equivalent for all of us in the healthcare advertising field is: “Which came first to the agency, the new business RFP or the termination notice from the existing client?”

Let me explain. The client-agency relationship is the foundation of our business. All the work—the product positioning statements, the scientific platforms, the MOA visualization, the selling aids, online ­presence—comes from this union of client and agency. Inherently, all client-agency relationships are organic and somewhat fragile things. Having been both a client VP of marketing (past life) and an agency president (current life), I can personally attest that this delicate organic relationship exists.

And that relationship gets stronger with each piece of great work delivered, with each deliverable that exceeds expectations, with each late Friday afternoon “save” the agency makes. That same relationship also gets frayed a little with every missed deadline, or with every unanticipated staffing change that an agency makes. Which brings me back to the relationship between the RFP (request for proposal) and the termination call.

Any agency executive will tell you that new business is the lifeblood of the agency, and that an RFP to pitch new business is a positive for the agency. It forces new thinking. It forces the creation of bold new ideas. Because agencies don't inventory people, RFPs mean that agencies often “borrow” a staffer from one account to go pitch another potential new piece of business.

And, if the agency wins the new business, there is a delicate kabuki dance as certain staffers are moved from one account to another and new staffers are hired and added. That's precisely where—if not handled with transparency, honesty, and partnership—the new business win in the left hand creates the beginning of a tear in the existing client relationship in the right hand.

It doesn't have to be that way. There are clients and agencies that have long-term relationships that have endured, even in our business.

What's the secret?  First, these are agencies that value—deep in their core—the nurturing of existing client relationships. These are agencies where we celebrate the ability of the team to maintain a positive client relationship with as much zeal as we reward pitch teams—with recognition, bonuses, and promotion opportunities on existing business.

Second, these are agencies that proactively talk with their client senior management about agency talent in order to be proactive about those individuals that are critical for continuity and those that can and should get new opportunities. Proactivity and transparency creates trust and minimizes the staffing roulette perception.

Finally, these are agencies where the agency senior management doesn't say “yes” to every RFP. Sometimes “no” is the right answer for a lot of reasons.

The arrival of the new business pitch RFP doesn't have to mean the beginning of the unraveling of trust somewhere else in the agency. There is room for growth, loyalty, and long-term partnering. It's not easy, but nothing good ever is—and that's another old axiom you can count on.


David Paragamian is group co-president, Huntsworth Health North America.
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