Dealing with picky bid specs
Hey kids... long post (and partial rant).
Wondering if any of you ever had this situation, and if so how you dealt with it.
Our company lost a bid for a job today.
Ok, a little backstory. We hardly ever bid on jobs. Almost never. This year is our company's 15th year, and we've probably submitted actual bids for things maybe three times ever. The simple fact is that for most of what we do (mostly broadcast television commercials, some industrials or corporate films) we are just hired by advertising agencies, or occasionally marketing departments of companies. We're not the cheapest game in town, not by a long shot (nor quite the most expensive)... so we're usually hired by folks who do so because they like our work, or the way we get things done... not because of price.
The pompous side of me will say "It's like when you want your portrait painted, you're not necessarily looking for the low bidder," and generally the kinds of clients that we usually like are not the ones where low dollar is the absolute priority.
Generally... but not always.
We decided to bid on this job, producing 30 videos for a particular department of our state's government. It would be a big job, 30 days of location shooting, probably about 120 days of editing and post production. A big gig.
Well... when we looked at the bid specs, they were very very obviously written specifically for the company who got the gig the last time they did these. I would go so far as to suspect (more than suspect, really) that the previous contractee gave them the exact specific specs to request in the bid. Things like very specific shooting formats ("must be shot with Panasonic P2 cameras"), very specific equipment ("must have a camera jib with a verizoom (sic) remote head"), logistics ("must have editing facilities within X number of miles..."), even going so far as to say what specific codecs must be used in editing (as if that would matter since the only deliverable was the final product). The most asinine requirement was that the contractee "Must have a dedicated satellite uplink at their location." WTF?? Completing this job would in no way shape or form require any satellite capabilities, uplink or otherwise. I'll spare the details of the job, but in this instance one wouldn't even use satellite for any sort of uploading even if you could. It's like putting out a bid for a barber and saying "Must own a Great Dane." It has nothing to do with this job. But it just so happens though that the previous contractee happens to be owned by a company that's owned by another company that does have a satellite uplink in their building. Hmmmm.
Furthermore, we had a state capital insider that we know call the department's director (who he knows) and ask him about this job, who fairly freely admitted "Yeah, that bid request is pretty much tailored for so-and-so..."
In the end, we figured out workarounds and compliances with their specific requirements. And we turned in a decent, maybe even slightly conservative bid. A bid that was SIX TIMES greater than the winning bidder (you guessed it, the previous contractee).
In this case...who cares? If they can actually do the job for the peanuts they bid, let them have it. They'll get what they pay for. We couldn't do it for anywhere near the low bid, we'd lose our shirts. So we're not crying over the loss, not at all.
But I don't want to find myself in this situation again, should we decide to go for something else. Have any of you encountered bid requests like this? If so, how do you deal with the situation? These are supposed to be fair, honest, open bids. .
Or do we just go with the graft-and-corruption flow? We do do a lot of work for political clients... so we're used to that. :) I'm more hacked off at the massive waste of time.
Advice and wisdom appreciated...
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
The only time I have seeing that kind of specific detailed requests for a bid was in a situation that was exactly what you guessed: the client already had decided with whom he wanted to work, so he wrote the request just because he was forced to.
Some companies arrived with very interesting proposals, but the client shut them down internally, talking technical garbage to the rest of the personal that was involved in the decision. Of course, not in front of the companies that did the job to present excellent projects.
The reason the client did that? He was forced to give options by the company, but he didn't want to. So, my advice, if you smell something like that don't waste your time unless you really have some free one.
PS. You guessed right, I worked there but I was NOT the client. Just an embarrassed witness.
[Fernando Mol] "if you smell something like that don't waste your time"
Walk away and let some other production company waste their time putting together a complex bid that will never be considered. In the distant past we had an agency that would come to us year after year asking for a bid on the same annual big project. There was enough money on the table that we dutifully put together a bid each year. Each year they shared the bad news that we didn't get the job. Slow learners - we eventually realized that they were simply filling the requirement for 3 bids. The next year they came back again and we politely declined. They couldn't believe that we declined to bid on the job. I think they were ticked off because they would have to find someone else to dance for them. Good riddance.
Todd, this example sounds so eggregious, I think you should formally protest it and file complaints with the proper state government authorities. The state ethics board at least, whatever they call it in your state. This stuff goes on because good people don't always spend the time and energy to raise a fuss when things are Not Right. The people doing wrong always take that as permission to continue, and to do worse.
If you were mean-spirited, you'd also tip the local politcal reporter on the deal: the "must own a completely unrelated satellite facility" part, they would just love. You won't get any business out of that, but it will make a more level playing field for others that follow.
I think the biggest issue here is the 1/6th of the price part. Since everything else about this is ethically questionable, how likely is it that through changes, revised work orders and so on that the winning bidder will actually end up getting a much higher price than their winning bid -- an already knows this? If so many other aspects were tilted their way, why not that too?
I like Mark's suggestion about reporting it, but the problem is you, being seen potentially as Mr. sour grapes, really can't be the one to do so.
If you really did want to get in the trenches there's a possibility of there being some litigious angle to handling this. But that would likely be expensive, protracted and (did I mention) expensive.
I say F'em and move on having learned in the future to not even bother with what's obviously a stacked deck.
Yeah, I agree the whole thing is pretty shady.
I'd be crying and whining about it more if their bid was similar in dollars to ours (or higher) and we'd lost the job anyway. However, our bid was right around $360,000, whereas the winning bid was just a little over $60K. There's no way we could have done it for anywhere near that kind of money... we'd go broke doing it. We didn't even have tons of profit built into our higher bid. Of course our bid was to do the job really really right and slick. I'm not saying the winning bidder won't (never heard of them and don't know their work), but if they can do it for that kind of budget, I'll gladly let them have it.
But yes, the whole deal smells. Especially the part about the satellite uplink. The bid request even went so far as to say the vendor must have a satellite uplink AT their facility WITHIN the city limits of the capital. Who cares? A satellite uplink could be in Tanzania, it could be anywhere.
We were getting around that part with the argument that it doesn't matter where it is, and the fact that we do have uplink access at a TV station that is one block from our studio. In fact, when we called to confirm its availability to us, their news director (who is a great and easily excitable gal, in a fun way) was pretty livid at the state over the requirements. Ha... we'll see if she takes that ball and runs with it. (and by the way, as I said the needs of this particular job has no actual satellite requirements whatsoever)
Oh well... we should have gone with our first instinct which was very much "Let's not waste out time." But it seemed like such a big job (in addition to being a fun job and the exact type of work that we are very good at), that we took a chance.
Thanks for the advice, and for letting me rant...
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
Government agencies don't care about quality...price is the only object when bidding is involved. Bidding on Government work is always "what's the lowest I can go and still make SOME money?" I've been underbid a lot too.
In an opposite experience, I once lost a bid because we UNDERBID the competition by $200,000. The commercial agency felt we must have left SOMETHING out. And we even padded our bid by 100%.
Little Frog Post
Read my blog, Little Frog in High Def
[Shane Ross] "I once lost a bid because we UNDERBID the competition"
I hear ya, Shane, there's a lot of truth in that, too.
In our early days, back when I started this company 15 years ago... we were dirt cheap... by far the least expensive game in town (if you only count high-end production). I know for a fact that we lost some jobs way back then because we didn't seem legit because it should cost more.
The only time I can remember actually going head-to-head with our main competition for a particular gig that the client had us both submit for, our quote for the job was well less than half of the other guys. And our quote was to do the project in 35mm, whereas theirs was 16mm. Fortunately we did get that one.
Through the years we've gradually jacked our rates up so they are more inline with the rest of the industry. Still less expensive than most, though.
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.
I "once" replied to a "bid" it was for Govt work as well. Total waste of time, the bid required a 6 passenger helicopter to be on call for whenever the client wanted to shoot some video of traffic during a bridge construction job. The spec was written by an idiot, or someone who worked for a helicopter rental service that owned a vhs camcorder. I read enough of the spec to realize that it was a complete waste of time and that someone else was uniquely suited to getting the job, no doubt with a huge kickback for the agency requesting the bid.
I knew enough to pass and have never bid on an "open bid" job since. I do think that this system is highly corrupt, if I were to receive a bid, I would probably charge a few thousand to work up a quote for the client and send them the bill first, you are effectively doing their work for them and they know it, I value my time and if they are to lazy or stupid to hire a line-producer to figure out how to get the job done, then they are a waste of time.
Governments are legally required to receive bids, but you are not required to waste your time! If you are receiving the bid blind, IE you have no personal relationship with anyone within the department requesting the bid, throw it in the garbage. If you know someone, they you at least have a chance, do find out what their potential budget is, and then you can waste your time with confidence, or throw it out. If you are a small company, as most production companies are, think about one thing, if you are unlucky enough to "win" the bid, and cannot do the job because you mis-calculated the costs, too bad, you are screwed! They will sue you, take your home, take your business and then hire someone else to finish the job. Unless you are very careful, never "bid" always "quote" a job. Huge difference legally.
The question about this stuff that interests me is whether or not there IS a fair system that's even possible in these kinds of situations.
In a "perfect" world, the taxpayers would get the lowest cost. The chosen vendor would make a decent living. Everyone in the "bid pool" would have an equal shot at the work. And very day of "government video production" would see a nice layer of clouds diffusing the sun so that nothing is over or underexposed and nobody needs the generators, 20-bys and HMIs to make things look really nice.
Nice fantasy, but we all know that all that is simply not how things work on a regular basis.
No two brains will do these videos precisely the same way. No two production companies have precisely the same talent and resources.
So the whole exercise has less to do with the creation of actual work with exceptional VALUE to the commissioning party- but rather with balancing economic interests between and among "constituencies" in the broadest non-political sense (and perhaps in the political sense as well.
The big problem for me is that I can't actually think up any better way to commission video services for parties like an official "government" that would actually be any better.
There HAVE to be "insiders" who best understand what the project needs. People judging the bids have to become informed about the "actual" capabilities of the bidding parties in order to select the "best" fit - but that's hardly ever done by looking at what's in the bid documents, is it. There's no place to indicate whether "Vendor A" is wildly creative or dull as a stump. Whether the project even NEEDS to be at level A, or level B, or Level C to succeed in whatever it's "mission" might be.
Maybe the truth is that there must be place in the world for "government bid videos" just like there must be a place in the world for government cheese.
Nobody really values it - but at some point, the case was made that it could be useful under the conditions that could reasonably be foreseen. And when (after a decade or so) the stuff ends up in some school cafeteria and actually lowers some costs and keeps some kids from being honestly hungry - then the fact that creating, storing, transporting and managing it at least does some small amount of good.
And if the worst happens and you have a flood or something and a lot of people REALLY need something to eat - and somebody remembers the cheese - then the cheese planners get nice pats on the back and everyone notes that "government really can do something useful" for a few days.
Until they forget.
Probably the best we can ever hope for with government video production of the "open bid" type being discussed here.
"Before speaking out ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions."-Justice O'Connor
>>In an opposite experience, I once lost a bid because we UNDERBID the competition by $200,000. The commercial agency felt we must have left SOMETHING out. And we even padded our bid by 100%.<<
Been there, too. Learning fast, though :-)
My Los Angeles Digital Agency
Isn't that the famous gag? John Glenn, moments before launch, thought, "Oh S...t, I'm sitting on a pile of low bids!"
[Todd Terry] "The simple fact is that for most of what we do (mostly broadcast television commercials, some industrials or corporate films) we are just hired by advertising agencies, or occasionally marketing departments of companies. We're not the cheapest game in town, not by a long shot (nor quite the most expensive)... so we're usually hired by folks who do so because they like our work, or the way we get things done... not because of price."
You're hired by people you know and who know you and can work well with you. This government contract is pretty much the same. They want people they know and can work with, but they are required to put it out to tender so they create these convoluted requirements that no-one else can fulfil. Is it understandable? Yes. Is it right? No. In my state there are laws against that. As others have suggested, drop a line to a journo or the anti-corruption commission or something.
I participated in a pre bid survey to determine how much the project would even cost. So we chatted about the project, how it might be streamlined etc. Turns out that even though the specs of the project were pretty specific they were willing to look at other ways to accomplish the same thing. For example we might use students' testimonials as audio only and cut broll over them. that way we could run around with a zoom getting bites while the other crew shot the broll.
In the end we didn't get the job.
I have seen wide variances in bid estimates...I suppose it's not my job to determine how the low bidder can make money with their bid, but my guess is there is some streamlining involved.
Tilt Media Inc.
Video Production, Post, Studio Sound Stage
I have been in the opposite position many times before (being the one to hire work). And for me I'm sometimes bound to play within the rules I'm given. Think of it this way. If I was a private company I could choose who I want to work for me. I have a group that I do like to use, why because I have a realationship with them. I know then product, In a nut shell I know what the end product will be. Like a director who only works with such and such a AD or DP or only this editor. Not because others can't do the job but becauase they are the ones they are comfortable working with. They don't have it out for the other guys. But In Government work especially you can't work like this. Everything is bid on. Everything!!! And usually you don't get to make the choice some else does. So you are forced to find loopholes and work arounds to get what you want. Unfortunately groups like yours get burned In The process. Again they don't mean too they just want to work with they guy they want. So they make up assorts of reasons why. The satellite uplink seems like a dead giveaway. I have on many occasions said " well these are the only guys who work with x, and so we need them". Did I really need x to get the job done, heck no but it help when the selection committee went to chose.
My two cents. Sorry you got burned though
We get these sort of issues all the freakin' time.
I now refuse to bid/quote/tender/lick finger and stick in the air for ANY local government contracts unless we have been asked to.
It's a waste of time. They either know someone who has helped them write the brief and then feel obliged/want to use them for the job anyway, or they have literally NO clue as to what they are buying. It might as well be a sack of apples.
Most local government staff in England don't have any commercial experience - they will go with the lowest quote, and then if they save money they get a pat on the back from the boss and if the company can't do it, it's passed to the legal team. Very few will understand just how labour intensive it is to complete a tender response.
However, in this case, I would be inclined to kick up a big stink about the brief being written so favourably towards one company.
go have at look at fbo.gov - you can search for any number of criteria - there are usually a dozen media related RFPs mixed in with unbelievably specific requests. It is true, the RFP's are likely written by the intended vendor themselves. Then you look at the list of interested vendors and there are dozens or more companies on the list. It can be very expensive to bid on federal contracts, and it helps to be based inside the Beltway. That being said, it can also be very lucrative.
But what this comes down to is something that is key to all business - relationships.