No two requests for proposals (RFP) or requests for qualifications (RFQ) are the same. In fact, as you read each one, you can usually get a sense of two things: whether the search is being led by purchasing or by marketing, and whether the requesting organization has any idea what an agency does and how it makes money.

The second item becomes infinitely clearer as the company asks for more and more. We recently went through a gauntlet with a restaurant company getting ready to open its first property in Memphis. In this case, the restaurant company was using its national agency of record to vet local agencies for the local grand opening project.

It all started innocently enough — a typical request for basic agency experience and qualifications with an emphasis on restaurants and grand openings. It also had a section in which the restaurant wanted to know a little about who we felt were good organizations to approach based on their identified target audience. We were more than happy to give that glimpse into our local expertise. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.

With our list in hand, the vetting agency then wanted more details on why they should utilize these organizations and an analysis of the demographics of the general area of the restaurant. We wentalong for that.

Soon, the restaurant was back at the well asking for greater analysis, names from the targeted organizations and asking for potential charitable partners. Alarm signals were going off within Sullivan Branding. We wondered if we were being taken advantage of only to be dropped when the national agency and restaurant had all the intelligence they needed to market for the opening.

An interview round took place with the “top three” contenders. Here, we learned that based on our original demographic analysis the restaurant had changed its target audience. They then asked if we could again provide a list of new target organizations and potential charity partners.

No, no, no, no, no! One of the most valuable services an agency provides is knowledge and experience about who to market to and where to find them. To ask for that once is proof of marketing ignorance. To ask for it twice is inexcusable.

We stepped away, told them it is not something we will provide. That kind of digging for free intelligence is a clear signal that this company is going to be trouble, is likely going to want way more than they have contracted to pay for, and is likely going to dispute every invoice.

An RFP is not an open invitation to make an agency work for free. It is not a chance to get free advice, free research or spec work that can be used and never paid for. The sooner every agency draws a line in the sand and tells a potential client “no,” the sooner these compan