On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Sophia Story discuss how to win a Request for Proposal by being playful. Forty percent of big brands are actively looking for smaller agencies this year because they’re more nimble, can push creative boundaries and tend to think outside the box in their work.
EP 90: Winning an RFP with Playfulness
Kelly: So welcome back to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. As most of you know, I love having conversations with agency owners about their fears, their failures, their realizations, things that they experiment with, because they're curious. Today, I'm actually joined by Sophia Story, the co-founder of 3 Sided Cube, which is an app design and development agency based out of Chicago. And she has an incredible story that she's going to share with us about Winning an RFP with Playfulness. So Sophia, thank you so much for joining me today. I am super excited that we've connected on LinkedIn. And now we're here.
Sophia: I'm excited too. Thank you very much for having me.
Kelly: Yeah. So the reason why you're here is because there was something on LinkedIn, that you had posted about an RFP that you won with a very different approach from what I have ever seen before. And I thought, wow, this is really brilliant, because not only did you win, obviously, it was effective. But there was something about the way that you made me think differently about RFPs. And I kind of want to level set there if we can, because most of the audience knows, from previous episodes, I'm pretty anti-RFP for all of the obvious reasons. You have clients who are self-prescribing what their problem statement is, what their needs are, what strategies you might use the budget, I mean, all of it really is detracting from the value proposition of the agency that they want to hire. So yes, anti-RFP. However, there are lots of agencies that just by the nature of the industries or the verticals that they serve, have to respond to these things. And yes, the process, the whole entire thing is flawed. And I would even say that it's even broken, but it's still a necessary evil, right? So how you respond to them? And I don't mean physically responding with a proposal, but how you respond to even the lead is really important. So I would love for you to dive in and tell us a little bit about this unique situation that you encountered, and how you solved it, because it was, again, in my opinion, really brilliant.
Sophia: Thank you. It didn't feel brilliant at the time. I mean, I've never done anything like this before, I have to be honest. I'd love to tell you that I always do this, but I don't. This was a first for us. But it's definitely made me stop and think about, like responding to RFPs moving forwards and how we respond to those RFPs. So yeah, I don't do this all the time. We had a cold lead come into the agency at the start of September. And it was from a well-known brand, Red Bull. But interestingly, the contact did not have a Red Bull email address. So I was I was curious. I was, like suspicious. I wasn't sure whether or not it was real. Probably it wasn't formal. It was very laid back. And they just completed a contact form on our website to say that they were thinking about designing and developing a mobile app. And, they just had a few questions, and they wanted to know if we'd be interested in working with them. I had to like, stop and think and reread that contact form and was like, did that just happen? Like did Red Bull just reach out to us? And I was on holiday at the time. I was in Greece. And the time difference was quite significant. So I replied straightaway, I was like, yes, potentially. But I guess what's different about 3 Sided Cube is our mission, to build tech for good to change millions of lives for the better. So what I mean by that is as an agency, we will only work on projects that have a positive impact in the world. And, there was no details within the contact form to let me know that the project was for good. We don't work in like retail or e-commerce so that's not our bag. So I reply cautiously. It was like, maybe yeah, but it would be really good to kind of jump on a call and find out a bit more about the project. But I think I replied pretty quickly. I mean, it did get my attention. And then they replied pretty quickly. And they we're like, yeah, we'd love to jump on a call. Are you free now? And I have to be really honest and say, yeah, I am. But I'm on holiday. So I'm not in my usual office setup. But yeah, so I jumped on a call. And there were two gentlemen, a guy called Will and a guy called Constantine. Will was based out of LA. And actually, interestingly, he was ex Red Bull. But he was contracting for Red Bull. And then the other guy was from a team working out of their head office in Australia. And we got on the call. And sometimes when you get on a client call, you just have chemistry and you're just like, I would love to work with you guys, not that it is a well-known name, but because you seem like really good guys.
Kelly: Ideal clients?
Kelly: Personality fit. All of it.
Sophia: They got it. They got that I was on holiday. They got how we worked. And it just felt good. Like, we had really good chemistry on the call. And we talked a bit about their project. I asked a lot of questions. It didn't get all formal. It just felt like a really good client call.
Kelly: Which is great from a discovery perspective, right? Like, that's how you want it to be. It's conversational. It's not like you had to put a deck together. It wasn't a capabilities thing. It's just a conversation. I love this, because this is what I'm seeing in business development also, with all the agencies that I work with bringing humanity and actual organic conversation back into business development. I don't know how we got so far away from it, but I'm glad it's coming back.
Sophia: I would describe it as magical. I don't have these conversations very often. But when I do, really, I treasure them. And it was great. Because I could ask questions. Nothing was off the table. And they were asking me questions. And I hate diving into decks, making it more formal, but I was talking them through our process. And I was like, look, I've got a deck, but I haven't tailored it for you guys or anything. And they're like, no, no, no, cool. Just open it and we can go through it. And that's what we did. Like, it wasn't a polished process. And anyway, the call ran on for like an hour and a half, 90 minutes. So it felt good. I think that's a good sign.
Kelly: Yeah, definitely. I want to ask, though, in the context of that discovery conversation, you're both exchanging information, right? Like, you're listening really intently. They're listening. You're both respecting. Like, it just sounds like a dream conversation, right? Like this is how you want a discovery call to go. What was the one question, if you could name one, that changed or informed the trajectory of how you responded to that RFP?
Sophia: So I asked them, what concern, if any, do you have around working with 3 Sided Cube?
Kelly: And that was toward the tail end of the call?
Sophia: Yeah. So it felt really, really good. And it's a question I actually asked a lot with potential clients, but usually, like at pitch stage, or when we've done a bit more work, but I could just tell that. I mean, if it were me, like, I'd have just said, yeah, like it just felt so good. And I think halfway through the conversation, they were really honest. And they were like, look, we have to go through an RFP process. Like, that's just what we have to do, and my heart sank a little and I was like, yeah, like because doing it for the sake of doing something isn't always the right thing. And, yeah, so I just I asked them, what were your concerns? And their response shocked me a little and hurt my ego. But they said that they were concerned that as an agency, were we playful enough for them? And it really took me back.
Kelly: It’s a whole new brand.
Sophia: Yeah, absolutely. If you go onto our website, we're quite a bright, vibrant, playful brand. That should or I hope it comes across in all of our comms, and we can be quite cheeky, but it really stopped me in my tracks because I don't think I've ever had a single person question our playfulness as an agency. And yeah, it left me gobsmacked, honestly, and it was a moment that made me really think. So that happened on like a Thursday. And they basically said that they would issue the RFP on Monday, and that there would be a tight deadline. They didn't confirm the deadline, but they said that it would be tight. So in my head, I was thinking, okay, we're going to get the RFP on Monday and we're going to have two weeks to respond. Most RFPs, I have two to four weeks, maybe a bit longer. But yeah, usually around two to four weeks. I was like two weeks we can do that. No problem. I opened my emails on Monday. Sure enough, like RFP came through. And no, it wasn't tailored. It was a very cold, generic email with a cold generic attachment. What was interesting was the document; the RFP itself was like two pages long. It was very brief, but very to the point, very succinct. But nothing around playfulness. All they asked for was a proposal that outlined like your process timings, costs, and then the team that would be working on it. And it all just felt a bit boring, to be honest with you. Like no proposal. It’s playful. Like you can’t make it something that it's not.
Kelly: And also, what's coming up for me is that had you not had that conversation? Had you not been really responsive and got them on the phone? Right? I always say you have to push back against anyone who issues an RFP that says we're not open to, like don't contact us, just respond, like I'm out. But had you not had that conversation with them, you wouldn't have asked that question. Right?
Kelly: You wouldn't know that was actually their greatest concern. And really, that RFP, the way that you're describing it, the way that it was structured, and the nature of it sets everybody up for failure. Right?
Sophia: Absolutely. And I'm like you, I don't think I would go for any RFPs that we couldn’t have a conversation. Like, if they want us to put the time and energy, like the investment into it, then I need them to give us time and energy.
Kelly: Absolutely. That's respect. That's mutual value. Yeah.
Sophia: Yeah, definitely 100%. This is our fear, like I guess I just stared at it for a day. I was like how, what? And then, I spoke to the team. And I was like, right, we're going to create a game. And honestly, they were like on it. And this is the other thing. The deadline was Friday. This was one week. We had one week.
Kelly: And you were sitting on the RFP for days. You actually had four days.
Sophia: Yeah, absolutely. And I was like, oh, gosh, and you have to think time difference came in to this as well. Because we had a client in LA. We had a client in Australia. And I myself at the time is based in the UK. And so I was straddling the time zones. Like you're basically losing a day because of the time zone as well. So it was quite a challenge. And I thought, honestly, if we're really brutally honest, most proposals are copy and paste jobs. They might be tailored and tweaked. And, we know that we should always put creative in there. But I think today, it just doesn't cut it. Like if you really want to win a project in the design and development world, you need to show off your skills. You need to show something. And whatever that is, whether it's a prototype, whether it's a demo, whether it's just a video, but just something you need to bring something to life to show off your skills.
Kelly: So you don't have to go so far as to like create something the way that you did, in this case, responding with a game, right? Because that's like a lot of design element time, all of that, especially under that time crunch. But I like that you're offering a couple of different options around that. I agree.
Sophia: Like always, and I think you just got to go the extra mile to show that you've got that passion, enthusiasm, and tenacity.
Kelly: That you want the business?
Sophia: Yeah. Absolutely. And I would expect that like if I was procuring something, then I would want to see that from whoever I was chatting to. So when I sat down with one of our creatives, and we basically had two days to design and develop something. And that would show that we could work quickly. Our creative was shit hot. And we could be playful, we could be funny, we could be cheeky. So we were like, okay, we looked at some basic game concepts, and we were like, okay, well, let's just do a quiz. We'll ask them. I think the dream was to ask them 10 questions in three minutes. And if they got the 10 questions right within the three minutes, they could get our proposal. That was the reward. But if they didn't, if they got it wrong, their proposal would burn and they wouldn't get our proposal. And the way that we framed it was, we did the design and development, we were playing with that. And we made it as best, I mean, it wasn't perfect. It worked on mobile, but it wasn't polished. So we were like, look, you're gonna have to do this on web. But I was like, I can't just send this to a client, like what we're going to say. So I drafted an email, and I was like, look, hey, guys, I know you know that we really want to work with you on this project, like it is good. It's everything that we stand for as an agency. But I need to know that you want to work with us, like I need you guys to sell to me that you are going to go above and beyond to work for us to or to work with us. And I was like, okay, so I need you to answer. I think we only did eight questions. I need you to answer the eight questions in three minutes. If you get these questions right, you'll get the proposal; if not, the proposal will burn. And I think I had some like quote about luck, which was from hunger games or something. And then I kind of basically sent a link to this quiz in an email, and I sent it on, it would have been there Friday morning. And I didn't hear anything for four hours. Four hours, they made me sweat. And of course, I had analytics to see if they were engaging with it. Nothing, radio silence. So we sent or I sent the email. And the proposal, just FYI, it was a really detailed proposal. Probably, I mean, some might say too detailed. It was like 32 pages. It had loads and loads of information. But it was really pretty boring. Like we all know that when you send a proposal, the first page people go to is the cost page. That is what they want to know.
Kelly: Which is why you never send a proposal.
Sophia: Absolutely. So I was like, okay, cool. And then it got to, I think it was like the end of our day in the UK where I was at the time. And Will, who was in LA Red Bull, emailed me and was like hats off to you guys. Like, that's amazing. I didn't get it right first time, but I did get there in the end. And what was, I think, quite smart was all of the questions that we asked were all relating to the conversation that we've had on our first call. It was all around our process. So they needed to have listened.
Kelly: Oh my God. This is everything. This is like literally if we could create a template for how new business should be cultivated and won in the new now, like this is it. I love it so much. I love it.
Sophia: It was good. It was great. Fun. And then Constantine, I guess I would call him the master of playfulness like he runs an agency that specializes in playfulness. And he was just like, I've never seen anything like it. And there was an assumption that there was going to be a pitch at the end of the proposal process. But there was no pitch, like on the back of that, that got sent on the Friday, and we'd want it the next week.
Kelly: Yeah, so really, really fast process. I mean, basically what that tells me is they found you however they found you. I think you originally said, when we first talked it was through a directory that they found 3 Sided Cube, right?
Kelly: So that tells me that from a new business, like I'm trying to break down all the steps. So from the visibility perspective, you were clearly on a directory, or there was some visibility from a search. So this actually came from organic search, which everyone, who thinks SEO is dead, or is something that you don't have to be on clutch or you don't have to be on all these other directories or you don't have to worry about search engine optimization for your site. Here you go. That is not true. It's part of the process. It's part of the mix that you need for effective business development. It's part of the whole cycle. So that comes in. It was also your response time, which was the make or break here. It was also the questions, the actual questions that you asked. The nature of the dialogue, the exchange that you had, the chemistry, the humanity, and then injecting the playfulness. So it's all of it. So of course, what that ultimately leads to, is you made 3 Sided Cube, the irreplaceable firm in the mind of Red Bull. And so there was no reason for anybody to do creative or to pitch or it was just like, these are the guys that we're working with.
Sophia: Yeah. And we gave them no option.
Kelly: You gave them no option. That’s why I'm saying it's brilliant, because that's where everybody wants to sit, right? Like, that's where every agency wants to sit. You give them no option, and you don't even have to pitch. And I get that this is a unique opportunity, like this is not always how it works. So many things in here, in this story are anomalies. But I actually see something like this being becoming more of the norm, right? Because there are a lot of big brands who are looking for smaller agencies. And ones that are more nimble ones, that are more playful ones or that are going to think out of the box ones that can actually produce a game, a quiz that burns a proposal. Like it's great. It's so fun. I love it.
Sophia: And you know what? I would definitely say like I struggle with RFPs, I find them boring. I have never met a single person that loves the RFP process. And if they say that they do, I think they're lying. But I thoroughly enjoyed that process. Like I was so excited to send that to the client. And like my heart was in my mouth when they didn't reply. And I was like, oh my gosh, they hate it. Like we've screwed this up. But it was high risk but for a big reward. And I think sometimes you have to take those risks somehow. Going back to our mission of building tech for good, what I've learned over these past years is you've got to stay true to your mission and what you're trying to do. And if a piece of work doesn't fit with that, it's okay to say no, or to push back on an RFP process, like we say no more than we say yes. And I think you've got to think about the types if you are going through the RFP process. Like I do understand that sometimes they're inevitable, but you could definitely stand out and have some fun with it for sure.
Kelly: Yeah. And I think just to build on what you said about saying no. I think saying no, is also part of the equation, part of the mix that makes you an irreplaceable firm, because you're not saying yes to everyone. You're saying if this doesn't align with our mission, then it's not a good fit. So for me, I think about that under the concept context of like essentialism. If it's not a definite yes, it's a definite no. It makes it very clear to make decisions. So it sounds like your big takeaway, like if we're kind of wrapping up and saying, alright, so agency owners, leaders who are listening or watching this, your big takeaway was really about standing out. Yeah?
Sophia: Absolutely. I mean, this will forever stay with me and be the lesson that we've learned that you can't underestimate how important it is to stand out in a crowd. And we know, especially now that RFPs are just so unbelievably competitive. But I think there are really smart ways to stand out. This is just one example. But I'm sure that there are quite a few out there.
Kelly: And I would imagine that this is going to change the way that you respond to every single RFP going forward.
Kelly: Yeah, I wouldn't want to be going up against you. Sophia, thank you so much for joining me today. This was such a great conversation, and I wish you all the best of luck in 2021 and beyond.
Sophia: Thank you so much.