Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mistakes Clients Make When Choosing an Agency: RFP process

In Part I, I responded to a blog post by Avi Dan on "The 7 Biggest Mistakes Clients Make When Choosing An Agency." In Part II, I want to explore the Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

The RFP process is intended to be a level playing field for all participating agencies, which would be fine and fair. But in practice, RFPs seem like a more complicated process, for clients, who have to develop them, and for agencies, who have to respond to them. 

I actually don't know anyone who likes the RFP process.

The problem is that too many of them seem poorly designed.

A few years ago, we got one from an engineering-driven company, and it was clear that the committee that developed the RFP was comprised of engineers, not marketers.  The tactics and strategies that are important for successful marketing were included -- but at the end, under a Miscellaneous heading. Sometimes RFPs have questions that don't even address the issue.

Here are some elements that are the hallmark of a well-conceived RFP:
  • A clear explanation of why the organization is conducting an RFP now, including the challenges the company faces. We've seen RFPs that provide minimal background, which makes it difficult to address key challenges. For example, one RFP was clear on the key challenge -- the organization was launching a new first-of-its-kind product; unfortunately, a quick search found that their product wasn't the first, and that that affects the strategy, messaging and positioning. 
  • A clear explanation of what the organization is seeking in an agency, particularly the skill sets and experience.  There are lots of blurred lines out there among agencies: there are traditional PR agencies; hybrids (likes ours, cover PR and social media); and social media agencies as well as ad agencies focused on digital. Part of the process before the RFP should be to pre-qualify the sort of agency, its expertise and background that can help an organization achieve its goals. That pre-screening can help agencies determine whether they should participate. 
  • Specific objectives for the program. 
  • A realistic time line for the process. We've seen RFPs that requested a great deal of work to be completed in two weeks, with the promise the prospective client would respond in two weeks. That happened recently, but that's the exception. I remember one RFP process in which the client said they would make a decision within a week...which stretched out to more than a month. And I knew going into it, based on what the prospective client said, that they were never going to meet their deadline.
  • A clear overview of the scope of work. One challenge is that the scope of work for a social media campaign can vary widely depending on the company, its resources and culture. This is especially a challenge when it comes to talking about social media, which can cover a lot of ground and tactics, and can require lots of multimedia content that can entail out-of-pocket expenses. 
  • A clear overview of the budget. I understand the challenge in talking about budgets -- as a company you don't want to set the bar too high (say, $20,000 per month) if a hungry agency is willing to underbid (say, $10,000 per month).  But without a range, or some guidance, it's difficult for an agency to know what's realistic or not. Because one prospective client said, "we really want to see your best ideas," "we're entering an important make-or-break growth phase for the company" and "budget isn't really an issue," we provided some great creative ideas...that also happened to be thousands of dollars more than they could stomach. Knowing that budget was more of an issue, we would have provided more ideas that fit that parameter.
  • A clear sense of how the proposals will be evaluated, including the structure you're looking for. A recent RFP we heard about generated proposals written in PowerPoint, Word and Excel. If there's that much confusion in how the document should be presented, there may be other problems with the procees. By the way, preparing a template for the proposals will also make it easier for the evaluating committee to review all the proposals and select a winner.
There are some other good ideas regarding RFPs on LinkedIn Groups available here; I liked the response from Paul Gilbert, a regional Director at Forrester Research.

If you disagree, please let me know. If you agree and have a great story to share, please let me know.

Meanwhile, to be fair, check out my blog post, "7 New Business Mistakes Agencies Make."

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