How RFPs can undermine DEI efforts

Feminuity CEO Sarah Saska points out how issues with the process become hurdles for BIPOC- and women-owned businesses.


Diversity has become a priority in the advertising business, but one of the most common practices clients use to select agency partners and other vendors might be undermining corporate DEI efforts.

Like many in the marketing and advertising industry, Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of DEI consultancy Feminuity, already felt there were things that “weren’t great” about RFPs.

HEADSHOT 2021 [DR. SARAH SASKA] (1)“But it was only when our team sat down and thought about applying the DEI lens to the process that we realized it’s problematic across the board. A lot of things, we find, are antithetical and diametrically opposed to equity-centric principles,” says Saska, whose doctoral research explored the intersection of diversity, inclusion and innovation in tech and business.

For instance, a key DEI principle involves inviting a diverse array of voices to the table. But even as companies have realized the importance of doing that when it comes to the voices in their meetings and contributing to their projects, the RFP process zones many of those voices out from the earliest stages of the creative process.

“Doing things in a deeply collaborative manner is fundamental – nothing for us, without us. We have to work with communities experiencing different kinds of marginalization to make sure a lot of different people are at the table when designing something,” elaborates Saska. “But RFPs are often very prescriptive, and they don’t usually reflect an organization’s needs, particularly when it comes to DEI.”

But there are other underlying issues with RFPs that perpetuate inequities in the industry. And while many of these are gripes affect all agencies, they become barriers for businesses owned by BIPOC or women, as well as individual practitioners, all of whom are already dealing with uneven access to financial and other resources.

For one, there is a serious barrier to entry. Because the work that goes into RFPs is not compensated, agencies that don’t have as many resources are often left out of the process simply because they can’t afford to participate. Asking for free work is “the number one way to exacerbate any type of inequity, especially for small businesses and independent practitioners,” says Saska.

There is also pressure, when the RFP doesn’t specify a budget, to take “a race to the bottom approach,” Saska says. “Without a budget, practitioners, firms and small businesses just try to bid the lowest, sometimes at the expense of what they’ll pay their people.” And when that happens, it often further entrenches gender- and race-based wage gaps.

In addition, there are issues around intellectual property protection: “Rarely do we see anything which helps to protect peoples’ IP, and that applies in any sector or industry.”

So what can companies that issue RFPs do about it? A good place to start is to simply invert them.

“RFPs could become more collaborative by consulting with people at the top end of an organization, before filling them out,” she explains. “Firms can’t always anticipate how much something will cost, but they could put a budget range – even just a ballpark would make a huge difference.”

While the issue of compensation for RFPs is far thornier, Saska says that intellectual property protection is something that could be baked in. “I think we could work with lawyers and provide a blurb that protects peoples’ intellectual capital a little bit better,” she says.

Ultimately, however, for the process to change in any meaningful way, there must be a desire on the part of organizations to do so. And Saska says that one way to create that desire could be through accountability, by creating a “checklist” of “aspirational targets” for RFPs to meet.

“It’d almost be like a checklist of ten things, and then when an RFP comes to market, people can say, ‘Hey, this hits on four of the ten principles,’ and decide if they want to fill it out,” she explains. “I think that would be interesting, and it would put a lot of pressure on organizations while helping them understand why they might not be receiving as many submissions.”