Cows! And Also the Secret to RFP Success.

I’ve been hearing from my peers in the branding and advertising industries that they’re getting invited to participate in many more RFPs, and that this is a sign that the economy is recovering. But I’m also hearing from them weeks later that they aren’t winning when they submit responses. Some firms are pushing three to five proposals per week out the door and only getting a nibble once or twice a month. Many respected and competent firms complain that the RFP process is flawed, and quite a few refuse to respond to requests for proposals entirely since most decisions seem to be made purely on price or back room handshakes.

I spent about a decade working for other people before opening up my own shop, and remember the constant pressure to get responses out the door. The bosses played the numbers, knowing that we’d land 8 to 12 percent of the opportunities, focusing our efforts on increasing the number of fish in the pond rather than becoming better fishermen. We used databases of canned responses and lightly customized them for fit. I recall numerous times where the final proof-reader, so tired from reading the same damn material on every single proposal, glossed over an instance where the wrong client name or industry example ended up being sent along. It upset leadership, but they still invariably valued increased RFP response volume over increased customization, believing that if we could just get into the final group we’d take the time to get it right. And when we did get into the pitch group most of my bosses did a good job closing the deal. We may have only landed about 10 percent of the RFPs overall, but when invited to pitch our success rate went up to about 40% – and that’s where the leaders focused.

As Stokefire approaches our ninth year in business I look back at a client list that includes Google, Motorola, Heinz, Charles Schwab, The US Department of Defense and hundreds of other worthy organizations, and realize that if I’d followed the tactics I’d been exposed to earlier I’d probably have landed about 10 percent of what we’ve gotten. And that’s where I was headed until something momentous happened.

About five years ago (prior to landing our first globally recognized client) a huge prospective client took me aside and said something like, “Look, man. You’re good. Very, very good. The fact that your four person firm has made it to the final four out of 128 agencies we considered should indicate that you’ve got something special. You brought up all sorts of insights and issues about the deliverables we asked for that proved you understood what we needed more deeply than anyone else. And then you lost your courage, and checked off every box on your RFP response and committed to delivering exactly what we asked for anyhow. And that’s the problem here. You have to admit, no matter how insightful you are, you can’t possibly deliver exactly what we’re asking for better than a nationally known firm a thousand times your size. And even if you could, the board members of a public company aren’t going to take a risk on an unknown like you . The only way I would ever get their approval to hire you is if you’d stuck by your guns and refused to give us what we asked for, and instead insisted on giving us what we need.”

There’s some serious paraphrasing going on there, but I believe I’m being faithful to his theme. It was a two hour conversation with a leader of a multi-billion dollar organization. And he so wanted to hire us that he not only took the time to tell us why he couldn’t, but to teach me how I could earn his business the next time he was in need as well. The last thing he said was that he was looking forward to working with us down the road.

No, he still hasn’t called us back (which would make this a much better story, I know) but we took his lesson to heart.

Today we respond to only a small fraction of the RFPs we receive. It’s not that we don’t believe in the process. In fact, it’s the opposite. We use the RFP process as a screening process to ensure that we’re actually a good fit for the client and opportunity. Our job as a branding and advertising consultancy isn’t to answer the questions and accede to the demands made in RFPs, it’s to figure out what’s behind the questions and demands, and ensure that the stuff in the RFP actually has the potential to get the results the client really wants, if they want anything at all. The RFPs we tend to respond to are the ones where we can prove there’s disconnect between what’s being asked for and the results they’re likely to get from the investment.

When a client knows exactly what they need and how best to get it, then my firm is like just another lowing cow lost among the herd, hoping that today it’ll be our milk in the pail the farmer brings to his own family. All the respondents are checking all the boxes provided. It’s like cows jostling and mooing – “You want milk? Well, I make milk. Let’s do this!” and “Me toooooo! Look how milky my milk is. It’s the very definition of what you’ve asked for! Why go anywhere else?”

How the Hell is the farmer supposed to choose when every cow can provide the requested services at the required levels?

When a prospective client requests a proposal they provide a structure for response so that each can be evaluated in parallel. The farmer says he wants milk, so he ensures that he only considers solutions that get him what he says he wants. Cows, goats, sheep, are the likely candidates. If he gets really creative he might consider almond, soy or rice milk – and feel all the more insightful for it. But what isn’t up for discussion – and is rarely even mentioned in an RFP process – is why the desired product or service is needed, and why the solutions outlined in the RFP are the best way to meet the need.

Stokefire doesn’t make milk. Real nor imagined. We figure out why the farmer says he needs it for his family, then determine if milk is the best product for the job. If it is? We go on our way – there are plenty of lowing cows ready to compete for his attention and give him what he asks for. If we find that the farmer’s real need is better served by something other than the proverbial milk? That’s when we invest the considerable time and effort crafting a response to an RFP – one that cannot be compared to anything else under consideration because it addresses the needed results rather than the ‘required’ methods and steps that have little chance of getting the farmer what he wants, and an even lesser chance of landing us the job.

The key to successful RFP responses isn’t getting the answers right. It’s having the courage and insight to modify the assumptions, questions, and rules so that the original request becomes irrelevant. Sure, the farmer said he wanted to bring milk back to his family, and there are millions of cows able to give him that milk. But what if you learned that the entire family was lactose intolerant, or that he was using it to fill his swimming pool at the rate of one bucket per day, or to clean the mirrors in his house? In each case, the best response wouldn’t be to fill the stated request and follow the process, it’d be to find a product better suited to the requirements.

Those uses may seem obviously wrong, but put in the context of what we see on branding RFPs are actually pretty reasonable. We’ve seen RFPs requesting logos that increase customer loyalty, demanding reuse of previously used campaigns for increased results without creative expense, and asking for a rebrand intended make a highly visible company scandal go away. These and many other RFPs got dozens of responses that checked every box. We didn’t check a single box for any of them. We couldn’t deliver what they asked for so we responded to the RFP we believed they should’ve written.

And we won.

Does it work every time? Absolutely not. About 10% of the time it doesn’t work and we fail to change the prospect’s perspective. About 5% of the time it doesn’t just fail, it fails spectacularly. If it was that farmer’s RFP, he’d grab his shotgun and unload both barrels into our chest. Then he’d tell us we didn’t get the job.

As bad as it sounds, I know from experience that being screamed at by prospective clients for having the nerve to challenge their assumptions is survivable. And it’s led to some wonderful client relationships months or years later, when the prospect has tried it their way and we have the, “You know, funny thing about that pitch you made…” conversation. It helps to keep that result in mind when resisting the urge to wipe their spittle from your eyebrows during the pitch.

If you’re not willing to take the risks needed to achieve results, but still blame the system itself rather than your ability to use it to your advantage? I’ve got no problem with that. In fact, I’ll even help. There’s a word you can repeat in your mind as a mantra that will ensure you always deliver fully compliant responses to RFPs. It’s easy to remember, and oddly comforting, too.

Say it with me…

“MoooOOOooooo.”

A Quick Peek Through The Lens

In recent years we’ve been taking on more photography-heavy projects, including ads for the concrete industry, editorial photographs, and now… dance.

 

This was snapped by our own Lindsay Garrett a few weeks back. She knows a thing or two about photography. And dance… and it shows.

Next blog will have something to do with brands or ads… I promise. Unless she takes more kickass photos. Which she might.

Happiness Is Thinking Outside The Checkbox

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

In a brief exchange I had with @kwheaton and @Bryan_El_Parker over on Twitter, both raised concerns about the way large companies hire their employees. They were responding to our blanket rejection notice posted previously on our blog. Bryan pointed out that the traditional system strips applicants of their individuality by making them check boxes, to which we said that “unless you’re a checkbox you shouldn’t work for large employers.” Kristan reasoned that not working with big employers may be easier said than done.

And so we slept on it. For a week. And here’s what came of it:

The issue isn’t that big companies can’t work with highly creative or visionary types, it’s that the best path to big company employment for people with these qualities is probably not a system that rigidly dictates and automatically enforces the form and content of their applications. If you’re genuinely creative or visionary then you’re better served by either finding another way in that allows you to show your skills, or by breaking or manipulating the ineffective process to show why they need what you bring to the table. Your goal shouldn’t be to do the best you can within the system, but to prove that the system is set up to solve the wrong problem or deliver the wrong result.

Daniel Pink explains part of the problem in his book (which is excellent, by the way,)  To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

…a few years ago, the Conference Board, the well-regarded U.S. business group, gave 155 public school superintendents and eighty-nine private employers a list of cognitive capacities and asked their respondents to rate these capacities according to which are most important in today’s workforce. The superintendents ranked “problem solving” number one. But the employers ranked it number eight. Their top-ranked ability: “Problem Identification.”

Checkboxes seem best suited to addressing a presupposed problem for which the right answer is at least intuited, if not outright known. And that’s why big companies use them. They believe that they know what they’re looking for and how to find it. If you don’t have a better way to see things, or a different problem identified, then checkboxes are probably not doing you a disservice. But if you do see a different problem that needs solving than the company does, each box you check will make your unique value less visible.

If you want (or have) to work for a big checkboxy organization and aren’t a checkboxy type you can, of course, just suck it up, check the boxes and hope for a job and role you can’t stand so you can change things from within before you have the life sapped from you. Or you can show them from the start that the problem that needs solving and the person they need aren’t a part of their checkbox system.

If you’re good, the considerable effort and insight this approach requires will be nothing compared to the pain and frustration you’ll avoid by having a job that encourages you to think, say, and do exactly as you wish rather than forcing you to be someone you hate to see in the mirror every Monday through Friday, holidays excepted.

If you’re not quite good enough, or the organization doesn’t appreciate your obvious talents? That’s a conversation for another day, I think.

Many thanks to Kristan and Bryan for their help in identifying this particular problem.

No Consensus on Thatcher

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Back in 2011, while railing against the tendency to settle for ‘non-objectionable’ over ‘highly effective’ brands, I cited a portion of this quote from the (then living) Prime Minister:

To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects. —the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.

What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?

Those are some exceptionally important words to me, and to the organization I’ve built. I reference them at nearly every speaking engagement and each new client briefing because they’re equally applicable to the fields of branding and design.

And today they seem even more relevant and true. Today there’s a new lack of consensus. Thatcher’s passing earlier this week has been simultaneously marked by loyal praise and passionate derision from those impacted by her efforts. She is now either loved or reviled by the masses for the things she held most dear and the controversial steps she took to effectively defend those things.

I can’t imagine that she would find this particularly upsetting. Thatcher didn’t stand for consensus; she stood for her convictions. And the United Kingdom as a whole and the world at large are stronger for it.

The lesson? As goes politics, so goes branding. Address the issues, don’t avoid them. Or do. After all, it’s only the wellbeing of your organization and its people at stake.

Ten things I wish I knew about food photography before I started

Our new designer (Lindsay Garrett) recently finished up a food photography project on behalf of one of our newest clients – Meals On Wheels. We asked her to share a few tips with our fans and followers – and with her fellow employees. Today she kindly obliges us.

Welcome Lindsay – the blog is yours!

Thanks and hello to everyone!

So you’ve decided to upgrade your Instagram shots of food and explore food photography more in depth? Perhaps you’ve decided your blog requires more mouth-watering photos to better represent the amazing dishes you share with readers. Or maybe you just want to document the incredible beauty of food and the memories, flavors, and stories that accompany it.

I’ve shot thousands of photos of food and had my work published in two cookbooks, including Made With Love, the Meals On Wheels Family Cookbook. Food photography is challenging and rewarding, but usually quite tasty. Below are the top ten things I figured out the hard way, but now you can be ten steps ahead. Go forth and be brilliant.

  1. Use the sun. Your best tool for food photography is a big, bright window. It’s better to have indirect sunlight to avoid casting harsh shadows, an easy way to diffuse the light is to tape up white paper. Daylight makes it easy to produce softly lit, naturally color balanced photos.
  2. Backlight. If your food is primarily backlit, the delicious textures that you are aiming to portray show up delightfully. The subject is likely to flatten out and lose detail when lit from the front. Don’t be tempted to use your flash, use reflectors or side lighting if you need more light.
  3. Undercook your food. Meat looks juicier, vegetables retain more water, shape, and color, and grains look fuller. You can fully cook breads and cakes though, those need to be done. You can use a broiler or blow torch to selectively brown food to give the crisp look we love to savor.
  4. Smaller plates mean bigger food. Size does matter. Smaller plates will make your food look bigger, providing the benefit that you don’t have to work with as much. Generous looking portions are the way to go! I’ve been known to give food a boost by putting folded paper towels under it or an upside down mug in a bowl of stew.
  5. Tell a story. Your photo will be more engaging if the viewer can imagine where they’d be if they could eat that delicious peach cobbler. Food is a central part of our life, we associate memories with it and break bread with loved ones around the table together. Connect to your audience by showing them not just the delicious food, but the great time they could have consuming it.
  6. Get creative. While deciding what story your photos will tell, your may find you need to add props to enhance it. I have created story lines by concocting beer out of apple cider vinegar and dish detergent bubbles and sprinkled crumbs around half eaten cookies next to a glass of milk and a coloring project. I have even seen food stylists whip up fresh delicious whipped cream to dollop over a wad of newspaper stuffed in a mug to emulate hot chocolate.
    The important part is that these creative concoctions were never the focus of the shot, they were always background elements that added interest.
  7. Oil works wonders. Everything looks sexier when oiled up: like green beans, chicken breasts, blueberries, even carrots. Oil gives you a sheen that allows you more time to take the photo. It also lends the feeling of fresh cooked, fresh washed, or just moist and delicious.
  8. Crop tightly. This applies to most photography. Make sure you frame your shot with care. Getting close to your subject provides more texture, detail, and eliminates distractions such as unrelated backgrounds or tablecloths.
  9. Use a tripod whenever possible. This ensures that your photo is crisp and clean. I was taught to go so far as to use a timer or remote to prevent any bump when the finger releases the shutter. Of course that teacher also told me to hold my breath during the 30 second exposure while I was standing 5 feet away.
  10. Don’t be afraid to change your angles. We have a tendency to photograph food from the 45 degree angle we are about to eat it from. Sometimes you want to get on the same level to show the flaky layers of a pastry or from above to show to beautiful designs on a cake. I usually start off on a tripod and then having captures the shots I need, I move around the food, freeing myself to find interesting angles.

In the end it’s all about experimenting for yourself and creating mouthwatering shots. So what are you waiting for? Happy shooting!

The Thingnamer Sleeps With Clients?

No. I don’t.

But I’ve been asked if I do with some regularity, and while it’s all in fun (I hope,) I find that when I ask other creatives if they get similar lines of questioning their answer has always been something like, “No. But I gotta ask, dude…  ARE you?”

During the unveiling of a new ID kit for a husband and wife business team just this week I was again asked if I’d gotten a concept by sleeping with a spouse. And it was the wife asking if I was sleeping with her husband.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

Two things seem to consistently precipitate the question. First, we have a stable of improbably big clients that no one can figure out how we land. And second, our work tends to communicate an intimate understanding of our clients – as though we might’ve gotten the idea from pillow-talk.

Regarding our ability to land clients, I’m not sure exactly what Stokefire’s success rate is on pitches now, but I’m guessing it hovers around 80%. A couple years ago we were over 90%. But, as fun as sleeping my way to profits might be, I’m pretty sure I’d be a lot less successful using any organ other than my brain to close deals. Our secret is that we only go after projects and clients that we know (and can prove) we’re ideally suited for. Sure, we might win more business overall if we went after everything put in front of us, but the wasted strategic effort and insight is something that I can’t stomach. We put a huge amount of effort into our proposals, so I don’t like to see them go to waste.

As for sleeping with clients to get better creative concepts? I’ve never tried it. I get results by putting the client under seriously uncomfortable pressure while I’m building their brand. I challenge their stated beliefs and test their commitment to their principles. It’s like Seraph from The Matrix Reloaded said, “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.”  Every one of our break-out successes on behalf of clients has come from pushing past what they said they wanted to expose a deeper truth that they couldn’t previously express or were perhaps even trying to hide. We build the brand on that newly exposed, raw, and unchanging truth so that regardless of what challenges lay ahead for our clients, the brand’s foundation will remain strong and stable enough to surpass them.

Great branding work does require intimacy, but only in a pants-on kind of way.

So, no, I did not have sexual relations with that client.

No.

Dearest potential applicant:

In our eight year history we’ve never brought on a single intern nor employee who started their cover letter with “Dear Sirs” or “To Whom it May Concern,” and then perhaps followed it with body copy that could just as well introduce someone trying to break into the laundromat business, or maybe rocket science.

The unofficial policy doesn’t hit home for you? Consider what it would be like if a purportedly reputable organization was staffed by people so lazy that instead of taking the time to understand and address each applicant individually, they just posted a blanket rejection statement on their blog and left it at that.

Searching for Steve Jobs’s “Dent In The Universe.”

Posted by: Tate Linden

Did Jobs make a dent in the universe? Damned if I know. Frankly, I can’t find a place far enough back to see for sure.

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”
- Attributed to Steve Jobs

Actually, Jobs probably didn’t say that. At least the real one didn’t. Noah Wylie said this exact line in The Pirates of Silicon Valley while playing Jobs in a made-for-TV movie. Martin Burke (the director of the movie) admitted that he never actually interviewed Jobs, though he did “have two or more sources that verify each scene” which means that all he knows is that something like that happened, but not what was really said. Even wikiquote lists it as unsourced.

Noted leadership expert (and author of Organizing Genius) Dr. Warren Bennis (or perhaps his coauthor, Patricia Ward Biederman) hedged, writing in 1996,

To echo Steve Jobs, whose Great Group at Apple created the Macintosh, each of these groups “put a dent in the universe.”

Dr. Bennis uses the phrase again twice in 1997 in the same interview with David Gergen in reference to the ideas discussed in Organizing Genius and in another interview in 1998 Dr. Bennis is back to loosely referencing Jobs’s denting.

Jump forward to 2001 and Philip Elmer-Dewitt also uses it twice in an article for Time Magazine:

He loved to tell his designers that the computer they were building — with its icons, its pull-down menus and its mouse — would not only change the world, but also “put a dent in the universe.”

In the future, says Levy, “we will cross the line between substance and cyberspace with increasing frequency, and think nothing of it.” That’s what Jobs would call a dent in the universe.

Upon his death we see the likes of Macworld and Discovery News cite the quote and reference a Time Magazine article that doesn’t say anything about the context or timing.

But it’s Playboy, of all the publishers in the world, that comes through  and actually finds Jobs’s dent under a pile of 15,000 words in an interview he gave way back in 1985. Jobs says,

At Apple, people are putting in 18-hour days. We attract a different type of person‐‑a person who doesn’t want to wait five or ten years to have someone take a giant risk on him or her. Someone who really wants to get in a little over his head and make a little dent in the universe.

So, while I can’t confirm that he made a dent in the universe, nor that Noah Wylie was quoting him directly with his often referenced script reading, it’s probably safe to assume that Jobs was at least thinking about the issues.

What bugs me more than the way this quote has grown from something he did say into something that he likely didn’t is the fact that he would think of it at all. For a man that smart and talented to choose a sledgehammer as his tool of choice seems… wrong. A dent gets stuffed with Bondo and buffed out. Pretty sure he didn’t actually want that to happen. Maybe I’ll look into it in my next post if there’s interest from the (possibly dented) world-at-large.

 

Happy +1, Us!

Almost exactly eight years ago I was sitting in my basement with a space heater blasting on my bare feet as I went through a stack of mail. It was mostly bills as I recall. But one plump envelope contained a notice from our friendly government saying that Stokefire Consulting Group, Inc. was officially incorporated. Oh, and also that we should start paying taxes and stuff.

The effective date for Stokefire’s incorporation was January 13, 2005, so we’re just past the start of a new year.

Since incorporation a whole lot has happened. Our clients have enabled us to develop outstanding and often award-winning work. We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations and many of the world’s best known brands, including Charles Schwab, Discovery Communications, Google, Heinz, Motorola, the US Department of Defense, and the United States Congress. At the start I couldn’t have imagined landing any one of them, but over the years I slowly got better at going after business that seemed improbable or impossible to win.

Since Stokefire hired its first employee in 2006 I’d struggled to find a way to teach employees how to bring in business. It never worked. I could show them how I did it, but it didn’t work for anyone else. On the plus side, it continued to work for me. We landed major projects, pulled business from agencies more than a thousand times our size, and for a while were nearly bulletproof in pitches, landing better than 90% of the work we went after. But nearly eight years in, my fingers on the keyboard and face in front of the prospective client was the only way it happened.

I write “nearly eight years” because two days before our eighth year in business I lost the right to claim sole ownership of the sales channel.  On her seventh day of employment, Lindsay (the newest member of our design team) got us a signed contract with a new client. I wasn’t even on the call. (Is it possible for me to retire from selling via blog post? Because that would be awesome.)

Congrats to Lindsay for giving Stokefire even more momentum as we blaze past eight years in business, and many thanks to all of our clients, employees, and partners who make it possible to keep doing what we’re good at and love to do. Without all of you I’d still be sitting barefoot in the basement.

And… For decency’s sake let’s just agree I’d at least be wearing PJs.



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