Debate & Discuss: Building Better Request for Proposals, Project Quotes and Creative Briefs

Posted: April 20, 2016 by
Linda Casey

The impact of the creative brief and RFPs on the package design process is anything but small. In this editorial, we will spotlight experts, including Chet Rutledge, director of packaging solutions for Walmart, to discuss requests for proposals, project quotes and creative briefs, and how these vehicles can be optimized for kicking off collaborative relationships.


Kellie Chapple
General manager, New York, Bulletproof


What are the top characteristics of the best creative briefs you have ever received?

The best client creative briefs are presented in person and not over email or phone. What message does it communicate to a potential agency partner when the client can’t make the time to meet in person? How do clients honestly think that they will get the best creative output from an agency when they don’t put the time in themselves?

The best client creative briefs are not only presented in person, but are also interactive. Be it visual stimulus, accompanied store visits or inspiring brand safaris, whichever is the more visually stimulating for an agency partner. Clients should be mindful that they too have a role in motivating their creative agencies, and once they do they will get the best results from their creative teams.


How can good creative briefs improve project results?

The one thing that all creative briefs have in common is to ultimately generate more revenue for clients’ brands and businesses. So this just reinforces the importance of the creative brief and why it is imperative to spend the time getting it right from the start. However, the onus is on the client to get it right from the outset. This is why clients should foster strong relationships with agency partners that they know and trust, to assist them in achieving this and ensure there’s a shared goal in making it happen.


Is the creative brief an outdated model?

I don’t think that the creative brief is an outdated model; I just think that clients have become lazy and see the brief as a form filling exercise. When client businesses spend the time to get the content just right from the outset and consider how to motivate their agency partners, by making it as visually engaging and interesting as possible, you know that the creative output is going to be a success. 


How can agencies ensure value for their clients but still protect their margins?

As with all relationships, there needs to be a win-win on both sides. The best way for clients to achieve this is by selecting their agency partner from the outset, work collaboratively with them to find a way that both parties feel good about and neither walks away feeling ripped off.


If you could change one industry standard practice for starting new projects, what would it be and why?

 The one standard industry practice I would definitely change is pitching, and even more so, free pitching. Free pitching in essence completely undermines the value of everything that the creative industry represents. For starters there is value in the intellectual property of the work that we create, however one wouldn’t think so based on the way that many client businesses behave and in turn how as agencies we allow clients to behave by agreeing to free pitching. This behavior isn’t tolerated in other industries, but why is it so in the creative world?

In any case whether pitching is paid for or free, overall it produces an artificial environment, one where clients and agencies work at arms’ length and the notion of collaboration is pushed to the wayside.

In my experience great creative doesn’t come from pitching, it in fact comes from the complete opposite, from building close relationships between client and agency teams—teams that collaborate together and build trust and respect over time. That security creates an environment, in which clients and agencies alike are comfortable to take risks in, to bravely standout from and to be different, and not just for difference’s sake.

When clients and agencies come together and have a shared goal for the creative output it can be very powerful, and this should be harnessed at all times to achieve the best results for everyone involved.


Terri Goldstein
CEO, The Goldstein Group


What are the top characteristics of the best creative briefs and RFPs you have ever received?

The best creative briefs and RFPs have an element of visual expression attached so the brief may be sensed and not simply read. A picture is forever worth 1000 words.

This may involve the client’s gold standards both in and out of category, a visual representation of the competitive set and a robust understanding of the brand target and their rituals, habits, needs, wants and aspirations.

It is key to know the driver of a brand re-stage or new launch. This can often be a large “aha” for us! Removing as much subjectivity as possible is key to creating a visual, tangible medium for a brand, which we often refer to as a visual vocabulary that is seen, felt and understood in five seconds or less.


How can good creative briefs and RFPs improve project results?

Unlike buying a car or hard goods, hiring the right firm goes beyond the obvious price and time comparisons. The true “it” factor is the chemistry and the communication that the client will have with their selected group. I believe this three-step process works best:

1. NDA is signed and client sends out brief.

2. Client schedules a call, which ensures RFP goals and objectives are clearly understood by all involved.

3. Client and prospective agency meet to review proposal and prospective agency’s capabilities. This helps gauge the group dynamics: chemistry, fit and trust.


Is the creative brief an outdated model?

Not at all! It is an iterative, back-and-forth process that gets the conversation past words, so your selected design firm is empowered to bring your ideas into the visual realm. Thus developing a creative brief becomes vital to the success of the brand for many reasons. Particularly that all expectations are spelled out including:

1. Terms and conditions are defined

2. Timetable is established

3. Appropriate signatures are assigned

4. Brand history, competitive set, target consumer are delineated

5. Overall brand goals are established upfront

With these five elements in place, all stakeholders can put their signatures on the creative brief to ensure consensus prior to the start of any design work, which serves to protect all agreements of time and cost allocations.


How can agencies ensure value for their clients but still protect their margins?

A proposal takes time and thought to prepare. If an agency doesn’t understand your needs, they have no way to intelligently respond to your request. If you don’t share your budget, the agency will still write you a proposal, but it becomes a guessing game: “Let me guess. Oh, that’s not what you wanted?” Now you’re frustrated and the agency is frustrated, which is no way to start a relationship! The more information you provide, the more accurate the estimate will be and the happier you will be. And ultimately all margins are established upfront and protected.

Be up front and be open when you’re looking for a new creative agency for a project and you can create a partnership that lasts a lifetime!


Chet Rutledge
Director, Packaging Solutions, Walmart Stores Inc.


What are the top characteristics of your best negotiations?

Fairness and firmness. In any solid negotiation, it is important to know what you want before you start.

It is also important to recognize that all parties involved want something and some things are must-haves and nice-to-haves. Being able to find things that are beneficial to all parties and can create a win-win.

An example of this is when we identified shortages of production capacity in a product category that also was at risk due to a single, branded supplier producing both its branded products and a large percentage of our private brand product in the category.

When capacity constraints and our private brand product were put on allocation, we accelerated conversations with another supplier that was looking at expanding its capabilities. This required installing new production lines, and we agreed to a multi-year contract with a guarantee of business. This included 100% of its production off the new lines and eventually reducing our demand over two to three years to allow the manufacturer to diversify its customer base and reduce overall risks.

Having a long-term agreement and business commitment helped our supplier secure the capital needed for the new lines and has been very successful with their business growing each of the past five years.


How important is the triple-bottom-line when choosing suppliers and negotiating design and marketing project costs?

This is a tricky balancing act. I think it is important to identify and search out suppliers that share similar values. Costs for one is profit for another. Transparent and open dialogue is essential and necessary to agree on the essential elements and anticipated action steps along the way. Identifying key deliverables and agreeing to the associated timing is crucial. Balancing workload, supplier needs and limiting changes and keeping the process streamlined are key to helping reduce burnout and staying within sight of the target.


How do you help your outside partners keep to their estimates on future projects?

First, ask yourself this question: What are two characteristics of good project quotes? Agreeing to key deliverables along with how many changes are acceptable and reasonable are keys to limiting “scope creep.” Late changes and multiple “what ifs” and the head scratchers like, “Can you merge version A with version B?” after the fact are quote killers.

Identifying and agreeing on final decision makers and change discipline are also necessary to stay in scope and limit overages.


How can project quotes help build brand-supplier relationships?

Good, accurate quotes and delivering against that is key to building trust and confidence for our suppliers. Overages and add-on fees that weren’t budgeted for tend to create a contentious relationship and always ends up in finger-pointing about who is responsible for the charges. Everyone should have a keen eye on costs and be quick to raise the red flag whenever they see things start to creep. This open communication also helps build confidence that the supplier, brand team and agency all have ownership in the project.


 Can you share two tips on how brands can better negotiate project pricing with their service- and supplier-partners?

Have a well-developed brand strategy and a phased execution plan that you can share with your service/supplier partners. The easier it is for them to have a clear understanding of the project, the more you will empower them to more accurately plan and estimate their workload and business requirements.



Tom Whitburn
Client services director, Elmwood


What are the top characteristics of the best creative briefs and RFPs you have ever received?

The ideal RFP provides solid background on what the project is meant to accomplish, what the current business situation is, guidance or thoughts on insights and opportunities, guidance on budget or scope expectations, and the freedom to collaborate to design the best approach for your brand.

The best creative briefs and RFPs give agencies the necessary guidance and background and see what more the agency can do to sharpen your thinking, add to design, and help you achieve even greater success.


How can good creative briefs and RFPs improve project outcomes?

In an increasingly fast-paced road to market in a competitive world, time itself continues to be one of our most valuable and sometimes underestimated assets. Efficient planning and thoughtful collaboration internally during the outset are hugely important in ensuring a continuously constructive and powerfully led creative development process.

The best design solutions often come as a result of giving projects the time they deserve to yield smart, thorough, and lasting creative results.


Is the creative brief an outdated model?

Creative briefs are not outdated, although the business certainly could benefit by raising the bar on the ability to induce great, strategic creative through differentiating insights, ownable areas of opportunity, clear budgets and timing, and an openness to solutions that may push the envelope in the short term, but provide great long term results.


How can agencies ensure value for their clients but still protect their margins?

The relationships that yield the most effective results are rooted in true partnerships, with teams fully invested in and connected to a brand’s business. By engaging with and committing to ongoing partner relationships, clients allow agencies to commit the best, dedicated resources to a client’s business while also providing them with the added flexibility to inject the work with fresh ideas from other cross-functional internal resources.

If you could change one industry standard practice for starting new projects, what would it be and why?

RFPs that provide no flexibility to offer some good ideas are often unwise. Companies issuing RFPs like this reduce agencies to simple order takers and remove our ability to provide some ideas that may prove valuable to the work. Conversely, RFPs that leave everything up to the agency are typically problematic. And don’t expect designing the ideal project to take place in a vacuum, with no guidance other than a whole lot of guesswork.

The challenge for brands is finding the right balance between providing too much guidance and too little. The quality of the proposal and the strategies that we return with, depends on finding this balance.


Is there anything else you would like to share with the Package Design audience?

Marketers should be honest and fair with prospective agencies. RFPs are time consuming and take away from billable business at hand.

Using RFPs and creative briefs to allow agencies to do what they do best by demonstrating their unique difference and point of view, as well as examples of what and how they’ve proven themselves with relevant and recent examples will be beneficial to the brand. And by treating the process with a degree of collaboration, the cream will naturally rise, and you’ll soon know who the agency partners you want to work with and who will deliver the most valuable, effective work.