Dating an Agency: 10 Ways to Write a Better RFP to Find the Agency You Want to Marry

I’ve seen a lot of RFPs. I wrote and edited them when I worked client-side. Now at Jackson Spalding I evaluate and respond to them from the agency side. In my 10 years in business development, I’ve learned what makes a good RFP and what makes a bad one. Have you ever released a RFP thinking that every agency in town would be falling over themselves to respond, to find that only a couple actually showed interest? Have you received a dozen proposals only to review them and not be ‘wowed’ by any of them? I can help.

My first piece of advice would be to avoid the RFP all together. Vet some agencies you’ve heard great things about. Do some research. Meet some of their people. If you like them and their past work, hire them for a project. This is the “Date Before You Get Married” approach. It allows you to see how that agency works and performs before you go all-in. Hiring an agency is a huge decision, and one that can have a huge impact on your career due to the risk-reward involved. Date before you marry.

If you must go the RFP route, follow these 10 steps and you’ll get the right agencies responding, and responding in ways that will help you find the right partner for your brand.

1.    Qualify the field – Do your homework and make the RFP invitation-only. Hold calls with roughly 15 agencies to find eight you want to formally include. Savvy agencies can recognize if they are ‘filler or favorite’ – whether you have sought out that agency to respond or you just need X number of proposals to fill a quota. If an agency recognizes you know very little about them, they could pass on the RFP. They may feel the odds aren’t there considering the time and expensive. For tax-funded entities that are required to post RFPs publically, you can largely ignore this.

2.    Provide the RFP to all agencies on the same day – It’s just fair. If an agency finds out that it received the RFP days or weeks after other agencies, they may feel they are at such a disadvantage that they won’t respond. Time is currency in business development, and who wants to spend their time playing catch-up against a head start? Great ideas and well-designed RFP responses take weeks (or even months) to put together.

3.    Provide enough time to respond – Did I mention great RFP responses take time? One week isn’t going to cut it. Two-to-three weeks should be the minimum if you expect to receive a custom, creative and thoughtful proposal from an agency that’s in-demand. If you get delayed internally in sending out the RFP, extend the deadline to respond. Or, if it relates to an urgent event coming up, don’t do the RFP. Do a little research, talk to 3-4 agencies and hire one of them for a project. 

4.    Have fun with it! – RFPs shouldn’t read like stereo instructions. A bit of humor goes a long way. Showcase your brand personality a little. Show that you’ll be a great team to work with. Agencies are quirky places and love a brand (and a team) that’s willing to have fun. One RFP that sticks out in my mind was a national non-profit that said “we haven’t updated our branding since Link first tried to rescue Zelda.” Yeah, we pursued that one.

5.    Reveal your budget – I know what you might be thinking: “But if I say what my budget is then the agency will try to spend all of it, or I’ll lessen Procurement’s negotiating power.” Let’s break this down a bit, because we should be honest with each other about money:

      • Yes, the agency will tell you how to spend the budget you state in the RFP. That’s the job of the agency – to advise          on how to maximize your spend to achieve the best ROI. It’s your choice on whether you put that plan to action.
      • Procurement has enough levers to pull in negations that a budget number  will not hinder them.
      • Agencies scan the RFP to see the budget. It will be the first question you get if you don’t disclose it.
      • Why get to the end of the courtship only to discover that the budget is too small for the agency to remain profitable         on the work and they back out? That’s a waste of your time.

If you want to see two different options from an agency, ask them to provide an approach for two different budget numbers.

6.    Avoid asking for spec work – A Toronto-based agency created a hilarious spoof on clients asking for spec work. It comes down to this: creative thinking and creative deliverables are what agencies produce to keep the lights on and pay their people. Campaigns are not commodities. Asking for full detailed plans or spec campaigns with full creative may turn off agencies from participating. Some agencies (Jackson Spalding included) have been burned by prospective clients who took spec creative or full plans and used them without hiring the agency. But we know you wouldn’t do such a thing. 

7.    Offer up data, but not insights – Information is not the currency it once was. We can all access information. Insights derived from data are what separates the great from the mediocre. If you want to evaluate how an agency thinks, give them the data and let them interpret it.

8.    Request a presentation, not a proposal – Even though we didn’t win it, my favorite RFP was actually a “Request for Presentation” rather than a “Request for Proposal.” The company asked agencies to come in and present their insights, thoughts, potential approach and why they were the best agency for the job. Remember that you are hiring people – people you will be working closely with. You should make sure you have chemistry with them. Back to our dating metaphor, you don’t want to end up stuck with the spouse who looked great on paper but leaves toothpaste all over the sink.

9.    Be flexible in formats – Proposal submission portal systems that break responses down into separate text fields are the worst. These are meant to commoditize agencies like a ‘skins game’ in golf: Agency B had the best response to Question 1, so they get a point; Agency E had the best response to Question 2, so they get a point. Do you want to hire the best agency proposal language writers, or the best agency who will advance your brand? Don’t be so concerned about comparing apples to apples in specific questions in the RFP. Examine the totality. Let the agency be creative in how they submit or present their response. You are hiring them for their creativity anyway.

10.    Be respectful and be nice – Push us, hold us accountable and have high standards, but also have respect for the agencies. Please don’t refer to us as vendors. Thank agencies for their time and efforts. Be polite on the initial RFP Q&A calls. While the client has the power, the agency is also evaluating the potential working relationship with the client. We want to be a part of your team. We want to work with fun, talented and driven people. We know you do, too. So just be nice. That’s a good thing for all of us to remember in life, too.

Do you agree with this list? Disagree with this list? Have others to add? I’d love to hear your opinion. I’m always open to new ideas and perspectives.