Help Me Help You: How to Find the Right Agency Through an RFP Process

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Written by Digital Surgeons,
• 12 min read

I may be one of the few people from an agency who thinks an RFP, or Request for Proposal, is a great way for brands to evaluate any potential partners — particularly those vetting agencies for a long-term engagement. And since most agency/brand relationships last about three years, I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.

Outside of the obvious must-haves in terms of the RFP document itself (stakeholder alignment, realistic timeline and dates, a Q&A period, etc.), there are some finer points to running a successful RFP that will help you discern the best partner.  

Whether you’re running an agency search for the first time or coming off the heels of a bad experience with an agency partner, here are some suggestions to find the best team for your brand, for your company and for yourself.

Do Your Research

Before formally issuing the RFP, do your own research on the agencies you want to invite to participate. Consider how you’ll be evaluating agencies and try to get a sense of how they might fare. For instance, if you’re looking for agencies with strong brand development capabilities, look through their website for case studies that reflect this skill.

While factors critical to the scope of work are paramount, also consider the logistics that will affect your working relationship. If you expect to have regular face-to-face meetings or presentations, will an agency on the other side of the country be able to compete with an agency 10 miles away?  

Only invite participants who can meet your needs. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

An RFP Is an Exercise in Trust

Choosing an agency to work with is a big decision. It doesn’t matter if they’re going to be your Agency of Record (AOR), part of an Inter-Agency Team (IAT), or partnering with you for a stand-alone project — they’re intertwining themselves with your business. And if you’re the one responsible for choosing an agency partner, your career trajectory is intertwined with their success, too.

This isn’t just a business decision, it’s an exercise in trust.

When you’re evaluating agency partners, you’re putting your trust in their experience, in their abilities, and in your own judgement. That being said, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be forthcoming in every aspect of the relationship as soon as you begin the search.

If you’re looking for a new agency partner, chances are that you’re likely unhappy with your current agency. Maybe their thinking has become stale or your business is in need of a turnaround. Whatever the reason may be, it’s difficult to come off the heels of a negative experience and put all your cards on the table.

Having respondents sign a non-disclosure agreement can help alleviate this reluctancy. By candidly discussing your pain points, you will increase the likelihood that a potential agency partner can better align themselves and their approach to your specific needs. Agencies don’t want to make the same mistakes as your previous partner.

When in Doubt, Overshare

Agencies asking intelligent questions related to the project, brand, industry, and consumer can illuminate the depth of their thinking and their understanding of your business. What you choose to share or keep close to the chest is a choice you’ll have to make — but know that withholding information may negatively influence the quality of your evaluation.

Information that may not necessarily speak directly to the scope of work but is still relevant may include:

  • Other partners you’re engaged with currently or have engaged with in the past
  • Assets you have – brand, digital, technology etc.
  • Research you’ve done or had commissioned
  • Mar-tech tools you currently utilize
  • A full picture of your marketing ecosystem, revenue streams etc.
  • Product roadmap
  • Organizational design
  • Sales and revenue numbers
  • Growth metrics
  • Target metrics (sales, market share etc.)
  • Broader business goals
  • Personal goals
  • Known challenges
  • Organizational churn
  • Positive or negative PR

It may seem like tangential information, but one of the many benefits of working with an agency is the fresh perspective they can offer. Giving potential partners a full picture of where you’re coming from will help them demonstrate the ways they can be most impactful in meeting your business goals.

The more information you share, the better positioned an agency is to show how they can make a meaningful contribution to the success of your brand as a whole.

The Elephant in the Room: Budget

At the risk of oversimplifying things, would you ever walk into an architect's office and ask, “how much for a house?” You have a budget in mind and the sooner you share it the better. Of course you want to get the best price for services rendered, but you also have some expectation regarding the quality and fidelity of the services you’re expecting as well.

Remember, you’re hiring an agency for their expertise, not for their ability to guess correctly.

By indicating a maximum budget for the project, you can help ensure agencies suggest cost-effective solutions, instead of having them play off of assumptions.

It may seem counterintuitive, but being upfront about your budget is a great way to give agencies the opportunity to self-exclude. If they can’t price themselves competitively, or can’t address your goals within the budget shared, it results in one of two things:

  1. You’re left with only agencies capable of delivering the services you need within your budget limitations, which saves you time, or;
  2. You learn that if you want agency services of a caliber and many of them self-exclude, your budget is insufficient and the organization might need to reconsider its expected investment.

Sharing a budget threshold or range sets the project up for success and helps you narrow down your choices to the most capable. Furthermore, without any sense of budget, your potential agency partners are flying blind and coming up with an estimate in a vacuum.

Unfortunately, if you choose to withhold your budget, some agencies will low-ball their estimates to win your business, and then the entire project is fraught with tension over changes in scope and budget, detracting not only from the relationship, but also from the work itself.

Account Executives should be relationship managers, not scope-creep negotiators.

If you have ambitious objectives and a limited budget, an agency can partner with you to recommend high-impact tactics that can help you meet your goals. (Their ability to do so is most likely why you’re looking for outside assistance in the first place.)

While a fully fleshed-out strategy, backed by data and insights, is a tall order for an RFP response, a good agency can minimally demonstrate their thinking and offer some perspective on how they might go about helping you.

Define The Scope of Work

Directly related to the budget is the scope of work. Every business is different, so a flat-fee estimate for generic services you’ve outlined is unlikely to address your specific needs. Giving the agency the option to put down a estimated range of pricing can go a long way in expectation management. Ultimately, you should seek to facilitate a conversation with agencies about how they can offer services to you, based on your specific industry/positioning/goals/org structure/internal capabilities/bandwidth etc.

In cases where you don’t yet have a scope of work, but you do have a budget (an AOR engagement), strategy and communications planning should be your first deliverable once you’ve decided on a partner —  not a line item in the response itself (with the exception of a media plan). For a project-based initiative like a website build, you should include the key functionalities and deliverables you require, and the functionalities that would be considered “nice to haves.”

Be realistic in your expectations when describing your needs as well. Similar to the cliche “good/fast/cheap” model you probably learned about in business school — prioritize timeline/budget/scope. Ask the tough questions ahead of time – if you’re looking for the cheapest option, or a stop-gap solution because you’re against a tight deadline make that known. Inversely, if you’re looking for a longer-term investment, or for something that will continue to serve your business as you grow, you should share that information as well. Most agencies can scale their services based on your budget limitations and the fidelity you require, so being up-front about the relative complexity of deliverables can help you compare budget estimates and recommendations realistically.

For you to reasonably compare your options, you need to first make sure everyone is on the same page.

Don’t Compare Apples to Bananas

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, but it will also neuter their 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.

Appreciate That It Costs Agencies Time, Money and Resources to Participate

Given the time and resources required for a thoughtful and effective response to an RFP, it’s also considerate to tell participants how many agencies are at the table. Agencies can sink tens of thousands of dollars into an RFP response, so being upfront about how many teams they’re competing against gives them the opportunity to know their odds. Again, if they choose to self exclude it means less half-hearted responses for you to evaluate, and leaves only the most passionate and invested agencies in the running.

In some cases, brands and businesses will offer a stipend for agencies to participate in the RFP process, or pay finalist agencies to develop a complete plan or strategy for evaluation and, should they win, execution of said plan. In both instances, you get to essentially “test-drive” the agency in a way that’s more true to the actual experience of working with them than an RFP process would allow. Agencies prefer this model (obviously), but is typically reserved for RFPs with considerable budgets and complex deliverables.  

Bearing in mind that all agencies, whether they win or lose, invest days and sometimes weeks into an RFP response, it’s also charitable to share with the losing agencies, who they lost to and why.

It’s a tough conversation, but it’s the right thing to do.

Get To Know Who You’re Dealing With

Last, but certainly not least, you should get to know the people you’re dealing with. Talk on the phone, and not just about the project. Try to meet in person if possible. Look at their other work thoroughly, investigate their backgrounds, see their work space. Don’t be shy about wanting to know more — these are the folks you’ll be communicating with often, in some cases on a daily basis. Now, as much as I would love to see, “Demonstrate your ability to carry a conversation” as a requisite in an RFP, personal chemistry isn’t something that can be quantified via spreadsheet and attached to an email, so pick up that phone and get chatting.

It’s a lot of work to get to know someone, but interpersonal relationships and empathy for each other are key factors in a successful project, so they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Similar to dating, approach the RFP process with an idea of what you’re looking for, otherwise you open yourself up to partners who you know won’t be right for you. Only take things to the next level after you know you’re on the same page regarding expectations and what you’re looking for in a partnership. Be up-front about any deal-breakers and get to know each other really well before making it a serious commitment.

For Digital Surgeons, a common thread among the long-lasting and most-successful partnerships that have been borne out of the RFP process has been that the RFP was run well. The alignment and shared empathy that is so crucial in any relationship was seeded through the RFP process itself. Ultimately, finding the right agency is a difficult task, and while an RFP is a great way to facilitate this search, there is nuance to how this tool can be used well. It requires an investment of time, energy and resources, but always remember – the four corners of the RFP scope and RFP process is simply a way to facilitate meeting potential partners, and to find a partner you truly connect with and can count on with your brand and your reputation, you have to dig a little deeper.

Reach out and find the best marketing agency for your business.