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The RFP Process: An Agency Perspective

March 28, 2016
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Posted by Susan Weissman

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The RFP process has somehow become the “tried and true” method of selecting partners or vendors. Marketing and branding communication partners are not exempt from this process, even though we often hear from clients who use RFPs how ineffective and tedious they are – for them!

The thinking goes something like this:

  • You need a fair process so you can compare partners “apples to apples.”
  • You need to interview various resources to determine who best fits your needs.
  • You need to make sure you’re getting the best price or value for your contract.
 

These boxes must be checked and the RFP process appears to check those boxes. But does it adequately allow you to evaluate potential partners? Having responded to many, many RFPs in the last 35 years, I can tell you that it is a flawed process. Why doesn’t it work?

  • The questions are usually generic: capabilities, bios for team members, process and rates, case studies and references. Any agency knows how to respond professionally and impressively to these questions. However, our clients and prospects tell us frequently that we all sound the same.
  • Most firms are good at writing the proposal and presenting. But that’s the dating stage. Working together is often quite different.
  • Numbers can be deceiving. How do you really know you’re getting a competitive rate or proposal?
  • Chemistry is of the utmost importance. How do you test for that?
 

If I could design the ideal RFP process – one that would really give a potential client a sense of who an agency is and help you truly pick the best suited organization – it might look like this:

  • Identify your challenges. Describe the challenges inside your organization relative to your brand position, your growth plans and your ability to retain or attract clients. Ask how the agency would address those issues – what process would they use, what questions would they ask and how have they solved similar problems. You are looking for a smart partner, one that can help you work through these issues. Make them demonstrate how they think.
  • Be direct about money. Tell the agency your budget (if you don’t have one set, use a ballpark). Give everyone the same budget and ask how each agency would recommend using it. The question then becomes, what will you get from each group for the money you have to spend?
  • Demonstrate a desire to learn – together. Marketing, branding and communication is a business that is constantly changing. If your partner isn’t a learning organization, they will not make a good long-term partner. Ask them what they learned in the last two years that might help your business. Is the agency insightful? Can you learn from them? That’s part of their value to you.
  • Make the presentation a work session. It is too easy to present a good sales pitch. Why not roll up your sleeves and work with the agency for two hours on something of value? You’ll get a much better sense of not only the team with whom you’ll be working, but how your teams work together. If nothing else, you might learn something that will help you move your business forward.
All brand communication firms are not the same. But unless you challenge them to show you their thinking and express their personality, you will not learn what is essential for you to determine who is the best partner for your organization. Make the process interesting for yourselves and the partners you want to explore. The results will surprise you.

 

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