Better RFPs: A Field Guide For Agencies And In-House Teams

I have a lot of SEM agency friends who refuse to participate in RFPs (requests for proposals). Their rationale usually boils down to this: if you (e.g., the agency) wasn’t involved in writing the RFP, you aren’t going to win. Or to put it another way: With most RFPs, the “fix is in” -- there’s an agency that has already won, but the marketing team has to go through the RFP process to appease procurement.

At my company, we do participate in RFPs, and we’ve even won a few where it turned out another agency had created the RFP. That said, we also lose RFPs for inexplicable and suspicious reasons. We’ve even had a few RFPs where we’ve put in a decent amount of effort filling out hundreds of questions and not even gotten a “Sorry, you lost” email back after repeated follow-up attempts.

In the spirit of saving in-house teams time and making agencies more comfortable with RFPs, I’d like to suggest a few ground rules for us all to live by. First, here are my rules for in-house teams:

  1. If the RFP is required by procurement, and you are 90% sure you are going to choose a specific agency anyway, make the RFP as short as possible! Maybe just one question like: “We have an agency we are really happy with. Why should we give your agency the time of day?”
  2. If there are a few “must-have” requirements, address these in a pre-RFP rather than throwing them in with hundreds of other questions. Examples: the agency must have international offices, must be a specialist in my vertical, or must be compliant with ISO standards.
  3. Try to write the RFP with as little help from Procurement as possible. Focus on the things that really matter -- which usually can be described in 15 or 20 questions. Procurement may have great ideas, but if you cede control completely to them, you’ll end up with a 150-question RFP that is not useful to you nor the agencies you are considering.
  4. Cast a wide net before you deliver the RFP, but keep the RFP list small. I think it’s great to talk to as many agencies as you can during your early research, but having more than four or five agencies compete in the actual RFP is overkill and means that a lot of agencies are going to put in a ton of work with a small chance of return. This can give you a bad reputation for future RFPs.
  5. Include agencies that are the right size for you. If you have a $100K/mo SEM budget, asking an agency that works with $10K/mo clients (or $1M/mo clients) to participate in your RFP will lead to a mismatch in terms of price and level of service and knowledge, which wastes everyone’s time.



Now, my rules for agencies:

  1. Ask lots of questions before you start the RFP. How many other agencies are participating? Is the incumbent involved (and are you happy with them)? Are there “must haves” that might disqualify us? How did you hear about us?
  2. Look at the RFP as the first step in a relationship, not the last step in a sales process. Don’t oversell your abilities, offer rates below your profit margins, or “bait and switch” your proposed account team just to win the deal. Winning an RFP under false pretenses does no one any good.
  3. Less is more. I think a lot of agencies get frustrated with RFPs because they spend way too much time filling them out. A simple question like “Do you have experience with Product Listing Ads?” can be answered in two to three sentences – max. If you write an opus in response to every question, you’ll end up with an RFP that is too long for anyone to process and a lot of anger over your wasted time when you don’t win.
  4. Pick and choose your RFPs wisely. As noted above, if an RFP isn’t a good fit for your agency (because of price, size of spend, qualifications), save everyone a lot of time by politely declining the invitation to participate.

I hope you found some of these rules helpful. Please comment with ideas that I might have missed!

2 comments about "Better RFPs: A Field Guide For Agencies And In-House Teams".
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  1. Jason Price from HeBS Digital, March 25, 2015 at 9:53 a.m.

    David, great post! To underscore David's comments is the reality that the digital world has made the RFP obsolete. Nowhere is this more true than in marketing in the hospitality and travel industry. Why? 1) The industry evolves too quickly that the authors of the RFP are asking about yesterday, not tomorrow, 2) The RFP is inherently designed to compare commodities (Ex. I need 100 pounds of coffee, who can offer the best quality and price?), 3) The enormous expense of the RFP for all sides (time and manpower to create, to issue, for agencies to respond, to review, to schedule interviews, to negotiate, to contract, to finally start working). 4) The authors of the RFP only know what they know to ask and not what they should be considering or what is around the corner. 5) The RFP tends to be a knee jerk reaction by new management or lack of investment in the client in taking the budgets and relationship seriously. I wrote a similar article last year and provided some alternatives to the RFP. I hope the ideas are transferrable to your industry. Best. Jason Price

  2. Carey Jernigan from re:group, March 25, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

    Thank you both for your comments. I believe that the RFP exchange is a critical one for both client and agency. We also wrote some similar guidelines you can find here

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