Knowing what you ‘want’ is killing your marketing effort before it starts

Imagine going to the doctor and telling them: “I’m having trouble running as fast as I used to. Give me a knee replacement,” without allowing them to take an X-ray.

Or meeting a colleague for lunch and finding that they ordered for you without asking what you wanted.

We call this phenomenon the ABQDilemma — answers before questions.

We read hundreds of marketing and communications requests for proposals each year and this is often what we see: 

“We want a campaign targeting [insert tough-to-reach population here]. We want radio and social media and TV ads and educational materials.”

These projects are designed to achieve surface-level outcomes, using pre-decided tactics. And in the organization’s mind, this is a win: They are being clear and setting good expectations for their firm. 

But when you list what you want as your tactics in a request for proposal (RFP), you are immediately discounting the most important part of full-scale marketing or behavioral change efforts: the research and strategy. 

If you just want beautiful assets, that’s great; and that’s what you will get. But if you want an agency to work with you to develop an audience-informed, stakeholder-driven campaign, the ABQ approach sets you up to fail before starting. 

What a good strategic agency delivers is more than just high-quality creative; the strategic executions reflect a deep awareness and understanding of the problem you are trying to solve, and the audiences that will help you bring about that change. 

Research and strategic development drive the entire project — audiences, messaging, distribution channels, KPIs — and are central to our identity as an agency. 

The way we see it, research, strategy, and core messaging are so important that they should take priority, especially on a limited budget. This means starting with a research-only engagement and working your way toward a strong and sustainable strategic approach that will carry through future projects — rather than spending more on low-cost creative just to get a campaign out into the wild. 

Here are three ways to avoid the ABQ pitfall as you plan your next RFP:

1. State your goal —not the path to your goal — in your RFP. Something as simple as “We want to refresh our brand,” or even something more specific like, “We want to reach [population] on [topic/service/product],” is better than spelling out the precise tactics as a requirement. 

2. Identify your stakeholders from the start; not as target audiences necessarily (although they could be), but as the individuals that know you, your organization, and/or your product intimately. These stakeholders will be a valuable resource for figuring out a strategic, audience-driven approach. 

3. Prioritize research, and be open to following where it leads you, even if that is away from your instincts or initial approach. And designate enough time for that research process to occur; it may lead you and your organizational leadership down an unexpected path, but it always results in better final outcomes. 

When we make that decision to respond to an RFP, it’s the projects that pose unconventional problems and thought-provoking questions that grab our attention the most.

Ultimately, strategic communications projects are creative partnerships between agencies and organizations — and in order to uncover the insight that will inform creative and take marketing efforts to the next level, everyone needs to be willing to learn something new.