How (Not) to Run an Agency RFP

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the RFP process – and I’ll boil it down to three words: Lack of respect

Over the last several years, I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the RFP process—and I’ll boil it down to three words: Lack of respect.

Agencies are always delighted when invited to participate in an Request for Proposal (RFP) process. While many may choose not to engage due to client conflict or the belief that their likelihood of being awarded the contract is nominal—or the budget outlined in the brief doesn’t come close to paying for the amount of work that will be required to achieve the client’s objectives—those that do participate have an expectation that the process will be fair and somewhat transparent.

Any agency worth its salt invests significant time, energy and out-of-pocket expense in a new business pitch. Whether it’s the early stages of completing the “competency” response (where the focus is on written information that provides an overview of the agency, some case studies that are relevant, industry experience, team bios, etc.,) or it’s a later stage when preparing for a face-to-face pitch, net-net, it takes a lot of hard work to prepare a smart, tightly integrated response that will help put your firm in the best possible light with the target decision makers. After all, we’re all supposed to be marketing experts and if we can’t market ourselves properly to a target audience of our peers, what kind of marketers are we?

That aside, recently we were included in three separate searches for a new agency and they shared a common trait—the big, black, hole.

We received the RFP, spent countless hours researching the brand to fully understand their point of differentiation, talked to past and current customers, participated in the Q&A process, coordinated with partners to fill in some capabilities gaps, and attempted to understand the financial metrics to ensure we could provide intelligent and thoughtful solutions that would actually yield a positive ROI. After weeks of work, we carefully assembled our response, printed multiple copies, bound the decks and invested in a courier to deliver it on the designated date to the clients’ location.

The next milestone on the RFP was to notify agencies that made it to the next round by XX/XX/XX.

Despite emails and phone calls to the RFP contact, we never heard a peep … even weeks and weeks after the deadline had passed.

In one instance, we finally got a junior staffer on the phone who told us the search had been cancelled and they renewed their contract with the incumbent—apparently they shopped around and convinced themselves there was no one better, but didn’t have the courage to let each participant know of their decision. But why? Afraid we’re going to try and talk them out of their decision??

In another instance, we finally got an email from a procurement officer advising us that the RFP had been cancelled—period—no other explanation. After a little sleuthing, we figured out the company hired a new marketing director in the middle of the search, and they probably wanted to regroup before proceeding. Fair enough—but don’t leave us all hung out to dry!

In a third instance, we finally tracked down an insider who told us the marcom team was going through a reorganization, and no one knew what was happening. Gosh. So glad I invested in THAT opportunity!

I’ve also noticed that many clients running RFPs are often ill-equipped to conduct the search properly. When we go through the Q&A process, they can’t seem to answer key questions that will drive strategically smart solutions. Or even basic things like:

  • Why are you looking for a new agency?
  • What are the biggest marketing challenges you’re facing today and, if you know, in the future?
  • What marketing efforts are you executing currently that are working and not working and why?
  • Who is your target audience—SPECIFICALLY?
  • What are your business metrics?
    • What is a new customer worth?
    • What is your churn rate?
    • How many products/services does a typical customer own?

The more you can share during the RFP process, the more likely you are to get intelligent, insightful ideas that can make a real difference to your business. And yes, that takes signing mutual NDA’s, investing real time and energy into the review process, and working with agency teams to discover who feels like a good “fit” and brings fresh ideas to the process that seem viable to your business.

It’s NOT a fishing expedition for free creative. (Would you go to a doctor and ask for a diagnosis without paying?) It’s NOT an exercise to freak out your incumbent so they’ll work harder/reduce their fees/change the way they do business. If that’s what you want, tell them that’s what you need, and if they don’t deliver, advise them you’re going to search for a replacement and that they needn’t participate as you have no intention of keeping the business with them.

After all, we’d all prefer not to work long nights and weekends if we don’t have a hope of winning. That’s just plain respectful.