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.

Client Maturity

As an agency, or even a marketing department, you must work with clients of every possible ilk. Oh sure, your client might be your company’s CEO or it might be the marketing director of a third-party company, but when you provide marketing services, you’re nearly always reporting to someone else. So what happens when that client doesn’t have the maturity required to participate at a high level in discussions and project development?

As an agency, or even a marketing department, you must work with clients of every possible ilk. Oh sure, your client might be your company’s CEO or it might be the marketing director of a third-party company, but when you provide marketing services, you’re nearly always reporting to someone else. So what happens when that client doesn’t have the maturity required to participate at a high level in discussions and project development? This lack of maturity might result in an abandonment of the project before completion because it “seemed to take too long,” “needed too much development,” or “was broken.”

As campaign architects and builders, we find ourselves working with clients who need to learn a new vernacular in order to participate in meetings and decision-making with our teams. Simple explanations are one thing, but when we spend copious time in calls and meetings simply educating, it’s time to take a long, hard look at the fit of the client.

For the immature client, working to build campaigns will be a daunting task—made so by longer meetings and hours’ long descriptions of design and development processes as you attempt to keep them in the know and in the loop. If our client is lacking the required maturity to participate in a meaningful manner, the negative impact on the project may derail efforts to the point of paralysis or even abandonment.

In an effort to find the best customers for your company, consider developing a maturity-diagnosis document. In this document, ask questions to help you determine at what level your customer will be able to contribute to conversations and decision-making. You could ask questions such as:

  • Do you know the difference between drip and nurture campaigns?
  • Does your company have a revenue goal this year?
  • Are you on target to reach your goal?
  • How will this campaign contribute to the goal?
  • How big is your sales team?
  • How are they compensated?
  • At what level is your understanding of HTML and CSS?
  • Is your website responsive; do you know what that is?
  • Does your website offer e-commerce? If so, what platform?
  • Does your e-commerce system enable you to send auto-responders?
  • Do you know how to modify these auto-responders?
  • How dependent are you on your IT department or other departments?

As you can see, the questions you might ask should span myriad topics, but which to ask will be dependent upon your company and the types of services you provide to clients.

If you are a .NET website-development company, you may need to ask questions focused more on the maturity of knowledge of our client in the e-commerce space. If you provide simple blast emails, you may wish to focus on their understanding of various types of emails and SEO. In both cases, however, you are looking to minimize the overhead created by having to educate your client each step or phase of the project.

Not every prospect who dials your number or fills out a form is a customer with whom your company should engage. You are not in the business of education, you’re in the business of providing a service—and the more quickly, succinctly and efficiently you can provide that service, the more profitable you will be.

Vet your customers. They certainly vetted you.

Dancing Baby Fails and Other Digital Distractions

Why, in the seemingly sophisticated world of digital marketing, are there so many advertising disasters? Who told the marketing director that the first step in digital marketing was to shout and wave your arms to ensure no one misses your message? Or to be vague/coy to drive inquisitive millions to click, just to learn more?

If you own a product or service, how much marketing value is there in having a person stand on a street corner twirling a directional sign trying to point passing motorists towards your company? I suppose if you own a restaurant and are offering a lunch bargain, and it’s between 11:30 and 2 p.m., it might get some attention and customers.

In my book, that marketer gets an A+ for clarity of message (Lunch Special RIGHT HERE!) and the ROI is probably pretty clear too. Give a guy $8 an hour to twirl a $200 sign, and you only need 20 customers to break even.

So why, in the seemingly sophisticated world of digital marketing, are there so many advertising disasters? Who told the marketing director that the first step in digital marketing was to shout and wave your arms to ensure no one misses your message? Or to be vague/coy to drive inquisitive millions to click, just to learn more?

I’m not just talking about that stupid dancing baby—which, by the way, has become so distracting I’ve been forced to place my hand on my monitor to cover it up while I try to read content on a page—or the creepy picture of the woman who ages 50 years in the span of 2 seconds, or the gal who seems to grow and shrink her belly fat instantly. They’re all the equivalent of the guy on the street corner, twirling his sign, but it’s not lunch time and I’m not hungry. And I don’t have the benefit of turning my head away to ignore the distraction, as I’m on a page with content I want.

The worst offenders are those that craft unclear messages that simply leave me saying “Wha–??”

Take the most recent ad presented on my Yahoo! home page: Reliant is not a brand I know, but apparently it’s an NRG Company. (Sorry, still nothing.)

The picture is of a stack of $20 bills and the headline is, “Secure your low price and get $300.” The button says “Switch Today.”

Call me dumb, but I have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. I’ve never heard of the brand, or the parent company, so I do what I do with most dumb marketing messages: I ignore it. (Well, that’s only partially true; under normal circumstances I would have ignored it, but I wanted to know who Reliant was—or, at a minimum, what NRG meant for this blob—so I clicked the “Switch Today” button.)

After lots of spinning, I got an error message. Hmmm … I tried to Google the company and then click through to their web site. A lot more spinning. Another error message. I start to panic. Did I just download a virus that’s now wreaking havoc on my desktop?

After switching browsers, I finally got to the Reliant website. It turns out they’re an energy company—but none of their links work. So I don’t even know if they service my area. Dumb and dumber.

Digital marketing isn’t brain surgery, but only a few have figured it out. Take ING Direct, for example. In the same pixel space as Reliant, the ING headline reads, “Turn on the Power of Checking and get a $50 bonus” with 3 bulleted benefits and a big, orange “Learn More” button. Yup. Got it. There’s cash for me for opening an account, no fees, 35K fee-free ATMs and I can make deposits from anywhere, anytime. Count me in!

Next time you’re crafting a digital ad, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. You don’t need gimmicks to get attention. You need a benefit-laden headline. You need a visual that supports your message. You need to make sure your link works. And K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple Stupid.