Swinging for the Fences (Interview with a Proposal Evaluator)


In June of 2007, the Chicago White Sox sent out an RFP to a variety of Chicago advertising agencies. Within a few weeks, the ball club received a whopping 60 proposals. The following is a candid interview with Chicago White Sox Advertising Coordinator Betsy McDonald about their RFP process and the proposals themselves… a handful of which were out-of-the-park home runs.

George Brumis: “Were you surprised to get 60 proposals?”

Betsy McDonald: “We were a little bit. We were expecting somewhere between 30 and 50. They seemed to keep pouring in. It was definitely exciting.”

George Brumis: “How many agencies did you originally select to be in the pitch?”

Betsy McDonald: “65. I was flooded with calls within the first three days of coverage by Lewis Lazare (Chicago Sun Times), Phil Rosenthal (Chicago Tribune) and the Sports Business Journal.”

George Brumis: “Your RFP was short and sweet. Was there a reason for that?”

Betsy McDonald: LAUGHS. “We wanted to leave it pretty wide open to give agencies the opportunity to be creative with how they responded to it. We didn’t want to say ‘write in this point font, on this many pages.’ We had some general questions that we needed people to get at, but we also didn’t want to make it a creative exercise because everyone who’s a White Sox fan feels like they know what we need. We didn’t want to start revealing all of our research at this stage and getting into ownership of ideas… three agencies could come up with a similar idea. We just wanted to get an idea for what the agencies were like and their process and their work and their case studies.”

George Brumis: “So you’ve seen other RFPs before and know that they can be long and tedious, asking for financials and all kinds of other stuff?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yes. We wanted ours to be fun because that’s the appeal of working on our account. With as much effort as you put into it (proposal), we wanted that to be fun, too.”

George Brumis: “I had read that you had a scorecard for rating the proposals, is that something you can talk about?”

Betsy McDonald: “Brooks (Boyer) and Scott (Reifert) and I sat down and had lunch together one day and went through our list and said ‘the agency we choose needs to excel at all of these.’ An agency that’s missing two of them isn’t going to cut it. The agency had to have all of these things, but also stand out from the crowd of 60. We really wanted amazing, award-winning creative and really strong strategy and media. Amazing creative not just in traditional media, but in some new emerging media, as well.”

George Brumis: “There were three of you on the review team… did all of you have the same voting power?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yeah, we really did. I sorted them out initially just to get them organized and then I went through and made a list of my personal top eight, and then had Brooks and Scott come in and do the same thing. All of us were pretty close (with our rankings).”

George Brumis: “Did you weed out any not-so-good proposals prior to your other team members reviewing them?”

Betsy McDonald: “I did, but Brooks still took a look at them, as well, just to make sure there wasn’t anyone we overlooked.”

George Brumis: “Based on your scoring system, were you surprised that some agencies didn’t make the cut?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yes, I think there are agencies with reputations… I would’ve expected them to make the cut… and then there were other agencies who put a little more effort into the process and that was a factor in our point system—commitment. Because when looking at some of the larger agencies, we didn’t want to feel like a small fish in a big pond. We expect a lot of attention from the top creatives. We don’t want to be pawned off onto the interns. If in the RFP process an agency is coming in and giving us just a generic response… that doesn’t look like they put a lot of time into our specific proposal, it looks like something they send in to every response… then if we’re not getting a good commitment now, how can we expect things to change later.”

George Brumis: “When you got down to 20 (responses), did you stick to your same scorecard, or did you have some good arguments at that point?”

Betsy McDonald: LAUGHS. “We did debate to an extent, but there really was a tier (of agencies) that really jumped out. There were fifteen to twenty that were in serious consideration and the top ones really shined.”

George Brumis: “How important was sports experience?”

Betsy McDonald: “It definitely helped, but at the same time, it had to be really strong sports experience. Experience in an entertainment-type category is similar. There were agencies that didn’t necessarily represent a team, but represented someone who’s a sports marketer who’s looking for help through sports sponsorships or other entertainment options in Chicago who understood that we need butts in seats and every game that you don’t sell out is lost potential revenue.”

George Brumis: “Did you find that some proposals were too short or too long?”

Betsy McDonald: “You could tell which ones were written by a copywriter or went through a creative department. They were as long as the other ones, but didn’t feel as long, because they were entertaining and engaging and well written. The ones in a 30- page binder that weren’t written well and were dry all blended together. There were some like this, where after the seventh page you were turning (pages) out of respect. There were a couple of agencies that built a website and didn’t send a traditional response, there were proposals that were four or five pages, some that were 40, and there were some that were long books but incorporated a lot photography or other components that broke up the text.”

George Brumis: “You mentioned that some agencies created websites… did that make it easier for you… or harder?”

Betsy McDonald: “It actually made it easier for everyone to access them just because people at the VP level within this organization are on the road a lot, so that helped and it allowed the agencies to show off another side of their capabilities. They had put together videos and more interactive features. A lot of companies sent a book along with a DVD reel, which certainly helped because there were some agencies that we looked at that were really strong in print, but then I would have to dig through their website to find their portfolio to see how they did in TV and radio.”

George Brumis: “You had about 60 proposals and you had about a week to review them. This didn’t leave you with too much time per proposal. Was that a problem?”

Betsy McDonald: “I think the ones that got in early probably got an advantage in terms of the amount of attention they got, only because our attention spans are human. The deadline was Friday, but the ones that came in Monday or Tuesday… you were really excited because these were the first responses. I could immediately look at them. On Friday I was basically running back and forth from my desk to the reception area grabbing a pile of five or six every half hour. They kept trickling in until 6pm (an hour past the 5pm due date). Some e-mailed a PDF or Word document on Friday, but those got caught in my spam folder until Monday.”

George Brumis: “You mentioned that some of your team appreciated getting responses digitally. Did you prefer that in general?”

Betsy McDonald: “I do think that the way that some people built their books with creative binding, which showed off some of the production capabilities, left a little more of an impression than if I had to go and print the digital file from a color printer. A proposal catches your attention more than an attachment.”

George Brumis: “Did most of the proposals have a copy or design theme throughout their proposals?”

Betsy McDonald: “Maybe half of them did. And some that I was really impressed with were the ones that you could tell that the agency had a really consistent brand standard set for themselves. I think that’s something a lot of agencies struggle with and if you could tell from all of their collateral that this is who they are and what they stand for with consistent fonts and colors for that agency, that was unusual and stood out. And then there were others that did more of a White Sox theme, where they used black and white White Sox photography.”

George Brumis: “Did you prefer one versus the other?”

Betsy McDonald: “One or the other is fine, but the proposals that used just a powerpoint template didn’t leave a strong impression of what the agency stood for in any sort of creative fashion.”

George Brumis: “Did you think most were created in InDesign?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yeah.”

George Brumis: “Did a lot of them use photography or illustration?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yes, maybe 40%. You could tell that a few had been out to a White Sox game and shot some photos for the proposal.”

George Brumis: “How important were the cover letters?”

Betsy McDonald: “The first thing I thought of when you asked that was the cover letter that misspelled my name. It was immediately off-putting. There were definitely some proposals with typos and you’re not just going to forget that when having everything perfect in our advertising is so important. If we misprint a game time in the newspaper, it’s just disastrous. You’re going to get 400 phone calls saying ‘well, I came at this time and this is what the advertisement said and I missed the game.’ Our stuff needs to be perfectly proofread, so typos and mistakes in the RFP response were hard to overcome. None of the agencies that had typos made the final cut… for other reasons… but that didn’t help.”

George Brumis: “Were most of the proposals well organized based on the questions you had asked? Or did you have to hunt around trying to find answers.”

Betsy McDonald: “50% were structured question/answer and the others were a little more creative and a little all over the place, which wasn’t necessarily bad, as long as all the information we were looking for was in there. We didn’t mind different formats because we weren’t comparing them directly with each other by question.”

George Brumis: “Did you feel that most of the proposals were written directly to you, or did you smell out some boilerplate copy?”

Betsy McDonald: “Most of them were directed to us. Some agencies even called ahead to find out the review members’ names so they can customize each proposal. There were a couple people who sent things to Jerry Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams and people who weren’t involved with this process at all. That was a little bit of a turnoff to see them trying to go that far over your head. It still just gets routed back to my desk.”

George Brumis: “A lot of agencies will do something really creative with their packaging. Did you see any that really stood out?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yeah, there were a few different ones. Someone sends a locker, another sends a life-size cut-out of Rodney Dangerfield. A couple of agencies sent oversized boxes of cracker jacks, one sent a box of dirt and grass, baseballs. Around ten agencies created baseball cards of those in their front office, but because so many did this, it didn’t stand out so well. You could tell that they were putting the creative thought into it, but when you get to your seventh pack of baseball cards, you’ve seen it too many times.”

George Brumis: “How did you feel about receiving lockers and different props… was it fun?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yeah, it was entertaining. People would walk by my desk and ask, ‘what in the heck is that?’ It stands out more than a proposal, but the content of the proposal is more important than the stunt. It just kind of gave you a cue to remember different agencies. It did get to a point where I’d have people calling saying,‘hey this is Bob.’ Well, I had three Bobs on my spreadsheet who submitted, and if you could say, ‘we are the ones who did this’ it just helps.”

George Brumis: “How important was brand recognition in your decision? In other words, would you consider an agency you never heard of before?”

Betsy McDonald: “The reason that we left it completely open was because no one had ever heard of Two by Four before we hired them and they did amazing work, so we wanted to have a process so we could potentially find another diamond in the rough in Chicago. There were some preconceived thoughts about some of the bigger ones (agencies) that people had heard about so we expected certain things from them. But if someone that we had never heard of before blew us away, that was even more exciting.”

George Brumis: “What about prior relationships? Sometimes marketing people will decide on certain agencies based on past relationships. Did that play out at all?”

Betsy McDonald: “I don’t think it did in this case.”

George Brumis: “Sounds like the review was really fair?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yeah, it was really just based purely on what the agencies put together as part of this process.”

George Brumis: “When you think of baseball, a lot of clichés come to mind. Did agencies use them in their proposals? Did they use them too much?”

Betsy McDonald: “No, the agencies didn’t get too much into the baseball clichés.”

George Brumis: “Was an agency’s broadcast reel a big deciding factor?”

Betsy McDonald: “It definitely was because our games are broadcast on TV and we’re always going to need TV spots. Even in the year where we don’t buy TV media, we have space to fill and always will… and we want that to be strong. There were some really small agencies who had reels where the production quality just wasn’t quite up to what we were looking for, even if the creative was entertaining for a small budget. We wanted to see that they were capable of managing our types of budgets. And there was also an advantage to agencies that had worked with professional athletes before because it’s not the easiest thing to get a baseball player to read from a script. They’re not actors, they’re not always comfortable, and they’re not always going to want to do the wacky thing that you think they should do.”

George Brumis: “You had mentioned in your RFP that you were looking for exceptional TV, radio, outdoor, print, interactive and alternative media. Did most agencies show you all of those things, or did most just send you their TV reel?”

Betsy McDonald: “Most people just sent TV and print, and I did a lot of digging through websites, which was another pretty important factor. There were some agencies I had never heard of before and if their proposal was interesting, I’d go back and check out their website. And if their website also blew me away, that definitely was an advantage. I’m not sure if everyone looks at websites in an RFP process, but it was important to us. There were a few agencies with websites that said, ‘coming soon’ or ‘under construction’ and you kind of wonder why. Is this a new agency who hasn’t built it yet, or do they not have the capabilities to build a website?”

George Brumis: “A lot of agencies create a video specifically for a pitch…beyond their agency reel. Did you receive any of these?”

Betsy McDonald: “Just a couple. You know, that again, one of the ones that we received that was built into their website really blew us away. They had brought 75 people from their agency out to a ball game, and you could tell that they put a lot of time and effort into the production of what they put together from a graphics and music standpoint, and the way they cut it together on no budget. It showed us that they could come up with something like that on no budget.”

George Brumis: “Did that agency make it to the next round?”

Betsy McDonald: “They did. Effort counts for a lot. I would say that if an agency isn’t going to put in the effort, they shouldn’t bother sending anything at all. I know that if you have 20 pitches going on, it can be overwhelming, and you still have your paying accounts and you can’t neglect them. Just pick the accounts you really want to go after and really go after them, but don’t ‘kind of’ go after a whole bunch of things a little bit.”

George Brumis: “Even though you didn’t ask for one, did any agencies lay out a comprehensive strategic plan or a calendar of recommended actions for the White Sox?”

Betsy McDonald: “No, the ones who got heavily into strategy just showed us what their process was like using diagrams. We weren’t asking for this, and it wasn’t something that we were expecting. It would be risky for them to try to make assumptions about what our goals are and what we need and what we’re trying to achieve. If you hit it on spot, great, but if you don’t, we’ll figure that you don’t get us. There were a few proposals that were a little off-putting because they were a little too critical of what we did in the past. The marketing committee here liked what we did. We approved it and we were involved in it.”

George Brumis: “Did you receive lots of case studies? Did all of the proposals have them?”

Betsy McDonald: “Not all of them, but I’d say the majority. That was great because that was really what we were looking for… how they problem-solved through advertising. What the client problem was and what the creative solution was to solve the problem. In this next round, we’re asking the finalists to come back and walk us through that process and give a little more detail on how they got there.”

George Brumis: “Were there any formats you really liked for case studies?”

Betsy McDonald: “I think, again, just the ones that were written in a really engaging way, as opposed to a dry textbook way.”

George Brumis: “Do you feel you know a lot more about all the agencies in town (Chicago) from looking through all these RFP responses?”

Betsy McDonald: LAUGHS. “Absolutely.”

George Brumis: “Regarding the packaging, were most of the proposals wire bound? Plastic bound? Were there steel cases?”

Betsy McDonald: “There was a huge range. There were some like that, and then others using hand-made leather trying to give the feel of a baseball glove, there were boxes in the shape of a base… just the whole gamut. Some were done in the agency’s colors. Some were hand-stitched like a baseball.”

George Brumis: “After you looked at the proposals and narrowed it down to 20 or so that you really liked, is that when you went to their websites?”

Betsy McDonald: “I actually started going through the websites when people first called to ask for a copy of the RFP, just so I would know who I was talking to. But once we got down to the final 20 was when I started really going through every single section of the website. These are the names on the proposal and do they have their bios on here (the website)?”

George Brumis: “Did most of the proposals have bios?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yes, the majority did.”

George Brumis: “With photos?”

Betsy McDonald: “Yes, but that was another thing… the bios of the new business pitch team were not necessarily what we care about. We’ve said for this second round we want to meet the team who will be staffing the account. If you’re the new business head and we’re never going to see you again, then you don’t need to come. We want to meet our account rep, their supervisor, our creative team. And through that we want a commitment that they will stay our team and we won’t be pawned off on interns. We were impressed by the people they used in their pitch, but we want to make sure the team we’ll be working with is equally impressive.”

George Brumis: “Is there anything you’d do differently with your RFP next time?”

Betsy McDonald: “I don’t think we would do anything differently.”

George Brumis: “Would you allow more time? Did you feel you had enough time in that week to go through all of these… was it a big undertaking where you had to take them home with you at night?”

Betsy McDonald: LAUGHS. “A little bit. Yeah, it was a big undertaking—but fortunately we were doing this at a time when our campaign for the year is pretty much over. This is not something we could do in January and February when we’re ramping up to go into a new campaign. It’s been a little bit of a lull on the advertising end, so I had time to go through it all. I think it’s tougher for Brooks and Scott because during the season they’re stretched a little thin. But they’re used to working all day and all night and all weekend at the games. Both of them ended up looking through proposals on flights.”

George Brumis: “You provided some terrific feedback today that’ll help agencies when they’re putting together their next RFP response. Is there any other advice you’d give them?”

Betsy McDonald: “I guess the biggest thing is to really go for it or don’t waste your time, because there are other agencies that are going to really give a whole-hearted effort. For us, the ones that made it, in terms of effort, were leagues above the other ones.”

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