RFPs — The bain of your existence or a necessary business tool? Regardless of where you stand, getting the RFP right sets the stage for success for both clients and agencies alike. Before you participate in a RFP it is important to understand your purpose, strategy and desired outcome.
The major reasons for embarking on a RFP include: dissatisfaction with costs, relationship, or quality / effectiveness of work, or, creating something new (work or relationship).
If you are dissatisfied with a current agency relationship and are looking to change agency partners, the road is filled with obstacles. I can tell you from an agency perspective, the reaction to the RFP is almost always negative. Nothing gets your agency partners’ attention more than the threat of a RFP. Responses will range from executive meetings, to discounted services to value-add to promising to change out staff or approach to the relationship. Agencies usually want to keep your business. Losing business is an expensive proposition. Not only do they need to invest in the RFP process, but the cost of replacing a client is always more expensive than retaining and growing one. This is the same for brands. RFPs are expensive from a time and resources perspective, and the outcome always delays marketplace effectiveness. The truth is, the reasons for going to RFP should be addressed long before the RFP is considered. Far too often, the RFP is a cop-out to having really difficult conversations, and working as a true partner to invest in and improve a relationship, or the output of a relationship. Recognize that sometimes, relationship problems start with the brand.
If you are looking to try something new, and you don’t already have a relationship with an agency, this exploration can take your business in exciting new directions, or leave you sorely disappointed. Here is where understanding and articulating what success looks like is most critical. It is easy to fall in love with the sexy creative or effervescent personalities of agency representatives during the pitch. It is also easy to have an inflexible list of requirements driven by procurement. The magic happens in achieving the balance between capability and relationship.
There are several approaches that can be taken to finding an agency.
Agency search consultants — I’ve found that these are valuable for major (multi-million dollar) reviews of comprehensive, retained relationships. Note that this approach can be time consuming, and expensive. Agency search consultants are paid a fee by the brand (usually a percentage of the total budget), but other arrangements are sometimes available. For smaller programs, or in niche areas of marketing, effectiveness can be limited. Additionally, unless an agency has approached and registered to work with a specific search consultant, or the consultant is very good at research and building / screening their database of agencies, you might not find the best fit. Here you have the greatest opportunity for being introduced to a new agency which has direct experience in your industry.
Independent consultants — These contractors are useful for smaller, niche programs. Usually paid for time spent. The challenge with independent consultants is breadth beyond their niche.
Personal networks — Going it alone with the help of some friends is the least expensive, but often the least effective at finding the right agency to meet your needs. The exercise is time consuming and their is an opportunity cost for time not spent on other activities. The lack of breadth and deep understanding of the marketplace, and ability to knit together solutions that can operate across different marketing disciplines are also factors which can contribute to a challenged outcome.
Procurement — Ensure your procurement function is skilled in, and specializes in marketing. In some cases, the role of procurement is simply to drive down price. In marketing, this can be difficult, as the company is not buying manufactured widgets, where increased volume reduces costs. Marketing is often the opposite, the more work required, the more cost. It is an investment in human capital. That said, of course there are approaches that can be taken to reduce costs if necessary, these include flattening organizational structure on the account, working with more junior-level talent, or entering into retained relationships.
Organizations which engage in Strategic Sourcing vs. Procurement often see the role as achieving higher quality work and gaining better value out of a relationship, not reducing costs, per se, but getting the most for the money.
- Prioritize what’s important to you. Is it quality of work? New capabilities? More industry experience? Better relationship? Cost? Creative? Marketing effectiveness? Understand you won’t get everything, and some objectives can be accomplished by focusing on the current relationship.
- Consider scope creep. All marketing is synergistic. It works together. The lines are blurred between marketing disciplines and channels. Are you looking for an agency that has breadth across disciplines? An agency that is part of a holding company? Or, an agency that plays well with others?
- Think beyond the current ask. Assume you will use this agency again in the future for other things. Can they be that kind of partner?
- Recognize your faults. Be upfront with yourself and your potential suitors about what you do well, and what you don’t do well. Where do you need help? Do you have the time to effectively manage an agency relationship?
- Be honest. Please don’t talk about dream budgets, incorrect timelines or grand plans that will never materialize. It causes agencies to mis-align resources with needs, drives up long-term costs and always sets up the relationship for eventual failure.
- Don’t Cheat. If you are planning on going to RFP when you have an existing agency, please don’t cheat on them and try someone else out. Your current agency will find out (they almost always do – we work in a very small world) and it only damages the relationship you have. It also builds false hope with the new agency and causes them to over-invest in a relationship that may never materialize. If you are concerned about how expensive agencies are, know that these are the kinds of tactics which drive costs up for everyone.
- Be a partner. Vendors sell hot dogs. Suppliers have warehouses full of widgets. Service providers fix your plumbing. Partners work together to achieve desired outcomes for the brand.