Procurement process: get all agencies in for a pitch Q&A?

Here is a procurement practice that I will never understand. When managing the tender process at some point they get all of the agencies into a room for a question and answer session.

The idea is that this ensures a level playing field and ensures that no agency has an unfair advantage over any other. The problem is I have never actually seen this achieve anything except to have the procurement team tick off a step in their procurement process.

This is particularly popular in government procurement processes, where I am told it is mandated by the procurement policy of government to ensure due diligence and governance in the process.

Now I understand if the sessions are just to provide information to the suppliers participating in the tender process, but considering it is a meeting of competitors, I think it is naive to expect competitors to ask questions that could reveal their competitive strategy.

The best way to demonstrate this is with an actual example of where this process went wrong. In this particular case, the tender was not a government tender, but a pharma-company who were undertaking a creative agency tender.

The tender process was similar to the ‘traditional’ and rather ‘old fashioned’ creative pitch, with a Q&A process around the RFP, where the team shared questions and answers with all respondents and then those responding with creative concepts were all asked to attend a single briefing session.

Q&A Session

So having received the extensive RFP documentation, the agencies were given two days to review the paper work and submit their questions to clarify the requirements and the process.

The process issues and questions were fairly straight forward, but the procurement team were concerned that there were many more process questions than there were questions about the requirements.

When you looked at the questions, they were fairly prosaic in regards to process, but the agencies asked very few questions on requirements because the agencies knew that all questions and the answers would be shared with all the other agencies.

So it would be counterproductive to ask questions that would reveal the agency’s strengths by using the questions to probe the desirability of those strengths through the Q&A process.

e.g. With a requirement in the RFP for data analytics the agency my explore the desirability of econometric modelling, but in doing so they will then remind all agencies participating to offer econometric modelling, effectively eliminating their potential competitive advantage.

Briefing Meeting

The more strategic the process being evaluated, the greater the impact of this open process. At the time of providing the brief to the agencies, the response against which they will be judged successful or not has commenced. Even at the time of reading the brief any good agency is already exploring possible strategic directions and creative territories.

Yet when the agency is in the open forum of the briefing session, they are expected to ask questions to explore these strategic and creative directions in front of their competitors. It is not going to happen. So the whole process gets reduced to at best a point scoring exercise on trivial issues or a total waste of time.

In some cases I have seen agencies spend significant amounts of time actually formulating misleading questions to ask in the briefing session to try and throw the other agencies off their strategy.

Focus on what you are evaluating

If you are selecting a media, creative or digital agency, then you are really wanting to select them for their strategic and creative thinking. So why would you use a process that diminishes their competitive advantage by sharing their strategic and creative thinking with their competitors?

I know this may not be immediately obvious, but sharing questions and undertaking open briefing sessions is effectively sharing the agency’s thinking with their competition.

So with the desire to keep the process “open” and “fair”, to comply with guidelines and provide the level of due diligence, the process actually works against the evaluation of the very criteria that is central to selecting a suitable agency.

The frustration is that I have had this conversation many times with many different procurement people. In almost every case they agree with the logic of the argument. But they always fall back on the fact that these are in the guidelines that they need to comply with.

It reminds me of the definition of insanity – “Doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different outcome”. Is it any wonder there are so many complaints about these processes and yet nothing ever changes. Is it just procurement insanity?

What do you think?