As ad dollars move to branded content, the RFP hasn’t kept pace

Publishers are relying on branded content revenue to diversify away from display ads, but among the many pain points is that the pitching process hasn’t evolved to account for the demands of the ad format.

The main complaint of publishers is that the request for proposal designed for short-term, straightforward display ads doesn’t work for more involved, long-lasting and customized campaigns.

“It’s like, ‘We want a really big idea that’s never been done before, we want to see how it works, and it’s due tomorrow at noon,’” sighed Jason Wagenheim, chief revenue officer at Bustle Digital Group.

“It’s the same process, same structure: Here’s our target, here’s what we’re looking for. The timeline hasn’t changed — it’s usually three, four days,” said Geoff Schiller, CRO of PopSugar.

The disconnect also surfaces when agencies send out RFPs for work they’re just pitching but haven’t won yet. There’s a big upside for the publisher who helps the agency win the business, but the risk is that the chances of success are low.

“Often we’ll get an RFP for an unnamed client. We reply, and they say no — because they were pitching new business and didn’t win the pitch,” Schiller said.

Or, the campaign doesn’t happen at all.

“What has happened is, we’ve submitted RFPs only to find the campaign all went to programmatic or outdoor or video,” Wagenheim said. “One client, we submitted eight times for, and eight times the campaign didn’t happen. It’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day.’ Now, we’re not going to submit until we have a proper conversation about where we’ll fit on the plan.”

All these are perennial complaints, but they’re made more problematic when applied to branded content campaigns, which are labor-intensive to begin with, tamping down profit margins.

Sometimes, publishers say, the agency sends out an RFP that the publishers suspect is just a ploy to fish for ideas. When applied to branded content programs, there’s more at stake because the campaigns are that much more complex. Kunal Gupta, CEO of Polar, an ad tech firm for branded content, said he’s heard from publisher clients that they all got the same RFP and none of them won it, but then they saw the campaign appear on social media using their ideas, down to the proposed headline.

“It’s nothing new, but when it was for display, it was a useful way for the advertiser to get a distribution strategy,” said Gupta. “Now, it’s actually the creative ideas. It’s pretty scary because they don’t know how to distinguish real RFPs from fake RFPs.”

Agencies aren’t crazy about the RFP time-frame situation, either. They say they’re at the whim of the clients, who often give agencies themselves a short window to come up with a campaign.

“Having an adequate level of creative content direction in the brief is important, but often we’re crunched to get the RFP out,” said Jeremy Tate, gm of DWA’s Boston office. “Obviously, the more you work with a publisher over time, the better it works.”

Sarah Baehr, co-chief investment officer at Horizon Media, said to the extent her agency can break down the briefing process into its components, that can help along the process.

“No one believes you’re going to get the best work by giving someone 24 hours to turn around a never-been-done idea,” Baehr said. “However, the reality is that budget shifts, last-minute changes in direction or late approvals occur and cause a domino effect with publishers being at the front end of the time crunch. Net net, short turnaround time have always been a struggle.”

Publishers have adjusted in a few ways to meet the RFP demand. They’ve been doing these kind of campaigns long enough that they can fall back on formats that have worked well for clients in the past. They’re also being more proactive about finding out the scope of the project and the likelihood of their fitting into it before responding. (Some are getting fewer RFPs anyway because clients are consolidating their spending with fewer publishers.)

“The RFP needs to go away,” Wagenheim said. “It needs to come from the publisher and client developing it together. There will always be the transactional RFP, but when you want to go to another level, that’s when it’s not necessary.”

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