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Finding an Agency Through an RFP Process

Here at Primacy we see dozens of RFPs every year. We get them from colleges and universities, healthcare institutions, insurance companies, financial services organizations and many other types of businesses. Regardless of which industry they’re from, there are certain things we see again and again – some good, some bad – that help us decide whether we should respond, whether we’ll be a good fit for the work outlined in the RFP and what kind of partner they might be if we win the work.

So we decided to share some tips on how to run a successful RFP process because we know they can be challenging, complex and confusing if you’ve never been through one before, or worse, you have been through one before and found an agency you were less than thrilled with.

Phase 1: Creating the RFP

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get help writing the RFP. This RFP process is likely only one of many things you have on your plate and you may not be familiar with the specifics of everything you’re asking for (this is particularly true in digital marketing, which changes daily) and you may never have written an RFP before.

If this is the case, ask some of the agencies you’re considering for help writing the RFP. Get their help defining the work that’s needed, ask for clarification about what certain things mean (What’s the difference between an open source CMS and a proprietary CMS? Is Google Analytics the same as Google Data Studio? Etc.) and ask them when they’ve seen RFP processes go well (or not).

We’ve done this for many prospective clients because it results in stronger RFPs and the opportunity to get to know the client better.

Be as clear as possible about what you’re looking for

Clear RFPs lead to clear proposals, it’s as simple as that. Spend time thinking about exactly what you need – both in terms of scope of work and what you’re looking for in an agency – before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Exactly what kind of work do you need done, for what purpose, over what timeframe? How will you measure success? Are you looking for a strategic partner or doer? Does the location of the agency matter? Does their experience in your particular industry matter? Do you want a high-touch, always-on engagement or a set-it-and-forget-it agency that can take work off your plate so you don’t have to think about it again?

Answer these types of questions first, then write your RFP. You’ll be glad you did.

Focus more on the work needed, less on the rules and regulations

Many RFP processes are run by procurement departments and/or legal departments, which usually means RFPs that are heavy on legalese, rules and regulations. This may be unavoidable in your organization, but within that context make sure to include enough information about the work needed that a prospective agency can understand what you’re looking for.

I’ve seen many RFPs where the first 30 (or 50) pages have nothing to do with the work that needs to be done, followed by one page of relevant details. Avoid this at all costs as it will result in proposals that are equally light on information that will help you make a good decision.

Share as much relevant background information as you can

Do you have background research on your target audience? Brand messaging documentation? Performance metrics? Specific goals you need to achieve? Share all of this (and more) in your RFP.

And if you don’t feel comfortable sharing all of this in a public document, arrange phone calls with each agency to share relevant information and elicit questions. Giving agencies a clear sense of the purpose of the work they’re being asked to bid on and will result in sharper, smarter proposals and an easier decision-making process for you.

Share your budget – even if it’s a range or a “no more than…” number

Some organizations are forbidden from sharing budget information and others choose not to because they feel they’re showing all their cards and the agency will tailor a proposal to that specific budget number in order to win.

But I would strongly recommend sharing a specific budget or even a “no more than…” number.

There are a couple reasons for this.

  1. By indicating a maximum budget, you can help ensure agencies suggest cost-effective solutions, instead of having them guess incorrectly about what you’re looking for.
  2. It gives agencies the opportunity to self-exclude. Not every agency is a good fit for every project and vice versa. It’s better for you to know at the beginning that there isn’t a match than farther down the line when the stakes are higher.

This process can also be a good way to gauge whether your organization has budgeted appropriately for the work ahead. It also avoids the possibility of an agency low-balling their estimates to win your business, and then the entire project is fraught with tension over changes in scope and budget, detracting from the relationship and the work itself.

Clearly define the RFP process and timeline

Is there a formal question and answer period? Is there a pre-bid conference call? Will you down-select from a larger list of agencies to a group that will be asked to present? Who will be involved in decision-making? By when do you expect to make important decisions? Are there opportunities to talk with you throughout the process, or is Procurement limiting contact with agencies?

These are just a few of the questions agencies ask themselves when they receive an RFP. Answering as many as you can will save you a lot of emails and phone calls from confused vendors.

Be clear about your expectations regarding what you want the agency to do and what your team will do.

Some organizations have big marketing teams with deep expertise and are looking for an agency to fill a very specific knowledge or capability niche. Others have one person juggling a million priorities who needs an agency to do everything. Be clear about which one you are – and where your team’s efforts end and the agency’s work will begin.

Phase 2: The proposal process

Be selective about the agencies you invite into the process

The project you’re embarking on is incredibly important to your organization, so do background research to identify both the type of agency you need and the names of specific agencies you’re interested in.

Going back to an earlier tip, being as clear as possible about the work you need done will help you identify agencies that could be a good fit. Make a list of agencies that do the type of work you’re looking for and spend time on their websites looking at examples of what they’ve done. If you know anyone who has worked with them before, ask if they achieved the goals they set out to accomplish and find out if they’d work with them again.

And try to limit the number of agencies you share your RFP with to a smallish group of highly qualified companies – I usually suggest that no more than five to seven agencies receive the RFP and you down-select to three for in-person presentations. This gives you a variety of perspectives and proposals to consider but doesn’t overwhelm you with a huge number of proposals that will take you days or weeks to sift through.

Communicate directly (and often) with agencies submitting a proposal

Can you imagine being asked to marry someone without getting to know them? In many respects this is what it’s like when an organization limits contact between themselves and prospective agencies. Often this limitation is put in place by Procurement with the goal of providing an equal playing field for all agencies and protecting the time of the people involved in the agency search.

I can’t overstate what a bad idea this is.

Regular communications during the proposal development phase lead to more clarity around scope, budget, project goals and organizational objectives, which in turn leads to stronger proposals. It also leads to a sense of whether there’s chemistry between organization and agency. Do I like talking with them? Can I see myself working with these people every day? Do they truly care about my organization and what we’re trying to accomplish? Do they really know what they’re doing?

These things won’t come through in a proposal – at least not to the degree you’ll need to make an important decision for your company or institution.

Allow enough time for agencies to respond effectively.

Like you, people who work at agencies are balancing many priorities. Allow for enough time in your RFP process that they can respond completely and thoughtfully.

For me (and depending on the scope of the work you’re hiring for) four to six weeks from issuing the RFP to receiving completed proposals is about right. Then add another two to four weeks for in-person presentations and decision-making.

Phase 3: Evaluating proposals and making a decision

Evaluate agencies against a clear set of guidelines

It’s impossible to compare agencies as though all things were equal — they’re not. As tempting as it may be to make a generic template for an agency to complete, a fill-in-the-blank approach will not only be ineffective, it will also neuter the agency’s creativity and ability to show what makes them different.

You can however keep things consistent between agencies by including a “scorecard,” or by listing criteria for how respondents will be evaluated, along with specific things they have to include as part of their response. This will help agencies frame their response and clearly identify the key information you’re looking for, without watering down the personality and thinking of the agencies in question.

View proposals as a starting point, not the finish line

Unless your scope of work is tightly defined in the RFP or you’re working very closely with agencies to define the work needed, the proposals you receive will be the agency’s best approach to your work based on what they know about you so far.

But there will inevitably be gaps between what you receive and what you need, so take the time after reading all the proposals to engage with agencies and ask for clarification or sharpening. This process, which can be a precursor to the in-person presentation phase, will help the agency get to know you better and vice versa so you can end up with the best-possible approach to the work you need done.

Judge spec work on its own merits, not how it achieves your specific objectives

Asking an agency to provide spec creative work in a proposal can be challenging. On the one hand, it gives you a clearer sense of how an agency thinks and the kind of work it’s capable of producing. On the other, it can set both you and the agency up for failure.

Even though they’re learning a lot about your organization and goals, the agencies submitting proposals don’t really know you or your strategy yet, so judge their spec work with that in mind. We submitted a proposal with spec work recently and they responded by saying that the ideas we suggested had already been considered and rejected because they didn’t fit their particular strategy. We weren’t familiar with their strategy, but were dinged in the process nonetheless and ultimately didn’t win the work.

To me, the two best ways to judge an agency’s capabilities are 1) to look at their case studies (on the website or in the proposal) and 2) read their proposal through the lens of the kind of thinking it shows: Did they consider your specific audiences and goals in the proposed plan? Did they address the challenges you’re facing and offer interesting possible solutions? Did they show how they had solved similar problems for others?

Spec work can be an important part of the agency search process, but it’s important to look at it in the context of the entire proposal.

Phase 4: After selecting an agency

Make time to share clear, specific feedback to losing agencies

This one is admittedly a bit self-serving, but the agencies that are responding to your RFP are investing significant time and money in the process. They learn everything they can about you, get excited about the potential of working with you and feverishly work to deliver something that will wow you.

When it doesn’t work out in our favor, the one question we all ask ourselves, is, “What could we have done differently in order to win?”

As the people driving this RFP process, you can answer that question.

If an agency requests a post-loss meeting with you, take them up on it and be as honest as you can about why they didn’t win. Your budget was much higher than the other agencies. Your plan didn’t make sense to us. We didn’t feel the chemistry with your team. We want a local agency who can be at our office regularly. The other team just seemed to want it more.

All of these are legitimate reasons not to select an agency – and all of them will provide learning opportunities that will help that agency grow and get better so they can be successful next time.

RFPs put in motion a complex dance, great expectations, and great emotional highs and lows for all involved. Using a few of the tips above will help ensure that you find a great-fit partner you can do great and successful work with.