Why RFPs Don’t Work When Selecting A Marketing Agency

Don't select a marketing agency by RFP process

It doesn’t matter whether you call it an RFP (Request For Proposal), RFQ (Request for Quotation), or RFI (Request For Information). Using a rigid, pre-determined checklist as the basis for selecting a marketing services provider is one of the worst things a business can do.

For many businesses, the process of selecting a supplier for a required product or service is determined by a formal selection process – an “RFP”.

Selecting a vendor by RFP would seem to make a lot of sense. You ensure each potential supplier answers the same questions. In return you get a clearer idea of features, options, pricing, and business terms. An RFP helps you evaluate each potential solution on its merits, and in comparison to competitive offerings.

Except it doesn’t. At least, not for marketing agencies.

RFPs Don’t Work When There Is A Creative Component In The Selection Process

An RFP-based selection process may be just the ticket if you’re buying office furniture, insurance, or employee healthcare. Buying determinations are easier when the selection criteria is objective, tangible, and immune to subjective interpretation.

But there’s problem with relying on such a process when looking for the right marketing agency. Quite often, the reasons for choosing one agency over another are anything but objective. Values that contribute to your selection decision, such as creativity, are hard to quantify.

What often happens is you end up in a bigger state of confusion than where you started. The people tasked with the job end up with wildly differing opinions. In the end the HiPPO smashes the process and decides based on ‘gut feeling’, giving a thumbs-up like some latter-day Caesar.

So what was the point of sending out an RFP in the first place?

RFP Mistake #1: You Don’t Know What Questions To Ask

Most businesses looking for an agency are doing so because they don’t have in-house marketing resources. But if there’s no-one in the organization who knows anything about marketing, how on earth do you know what questions to ask?

Since RFPs are about considering potential suppliers against a neutral baseline, it’s not up to the agency to fill in the blanks you’ve missed. That’s on you. It’s up to the client to ask the right questions.

Most marketing RFPs have been put together without thought or consideration to the actual business result the organization is looking to achieve. There’s been no research into how a marketing agency works, what their client onboarding process looks like, or how they measure results.

You need to do your homework. Not by spending an hour Googling “best marketing agencies near me“. But by researching qualified suppliers, conducting reference and background checks, and consulting with industry partners who know what others are doing.

If you really want to do this properly, you should be employing a reputable consultant to do all of this for you. Now’s not the time for hastily-scribbled notes on the back on a napkin while having a beer with your Sales Director.

If you cannot specifically and quantifiably articulate your needs, you shouldn’t be sending out an RFP.

RFP Mistake #2: All About Tactics And Nothing About Strategy

Marketing RFPs involve too much paperwork

If your RFP is just a shopping list of tactics, don’t be surprised if you end up with the agency version of a dodgy second-hand car dealer.

Getting into tactics at this stage implies you know what the problem is. Again, if you don’t know about marketing, deciding on the list of tactics isn’t your job. It’s the job of your agency. Going down that road is akin to self-diagnosis. If an agency simply does what you tell them to do and the results suck, it’s probably not their fault.

You don’t demand your mechanic changes your car’s transmission if they’ve determined what you actually need is an oil change. It’s the same for an agency. Accept the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Any agency worth its salt will take the time to understand your unique business issues and circumstances, and design a marketing engagement plan to suit. That approach doesn’t fit the constraints an RFP process imposes.

RFP Mistake #3: Having The Agency Decide For You

Hang on, didn’t I just say that the agency should be making marketing decisions, not you? Well, yes and no.

Since most have been put together without research or in-depth preparation, RFP questions are restricted to what you already know. Which, as I’ve said, probably isn’t very much. The result is you’re limited to asking a subset of questions about what you think you know about marketing.

An RFP, by definition, assumes you know what you want. It outlines the nature of the engagement, project scope, process methodology, and KPIs. It doesn’t abdicate decision-making.

If you’re looking for a marketing partner who can advise and recommend courses of action, that’s not something you can specify in an RFP. Even if you did, how do you plan to measure that attribute against another candidate?

RFP Mistake #4: Ignoring The Intangibles

The best client-supplier relationships with agencies are partnerships. Like any partnership it’s not just about deliverables, quality, or pricing. It’s also about intangibles.

There needs to be a chemistry between you and your agency. The working relationship is often more personal and emotional in nature compared to working with other suppliers.

Sure, you can get an idea of capabilities and creativity from looking at past work, or review case studies. But that only gets you so far.

RFPs prevent you obtaining a real understanding of the agency from a cultural perspective. You don’t know if they’ll be a good fit within your company. You don’t know if their ethos aligns with that of your business.

Too often an RFP is used as the only source of information on a potential supplier, or as a replacement for a phone discussion. As a result you’re unlikely to get a well-rounded impression of an agency’s true nature or capabilities.

We Refuse To Play A Rigged Game

We don’t believe in choosing an agency based on such selection processes. So much so that we flatly refuse to participate in RFPs. We’ve never submitted an RFP in the 14+ years we’ve been in business.

Marketing RFPs are resource intensive and poorly prepared

Usually, that’s because most RFPs haven’t been prepared with adequate foresight, making it a waste of time. But there are other reasons.

RFPs ignore the personal aspect we believe is vital for any successful long term business relationship. RFPs define candidates by little more than capabilities and price. Potential suppliers are treated as commodities, while the client wants their marketing to be the exact opposite.

The lack of any direct contact means agencies don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate their uniqueness and differentiation. Again, these are deliverables the client expects for their own business. Clients don’t get to hear about capabilities that may benefit their project. Because they’ve not been considered in the questions, the agency doesn’t get the chance to talk about them.

RFPs can take an inordinately large of time to complete. They assume agency production processes and communications are the same. They leave no room for workaround solutions, or better alternatives to specific questions. “Do you offer X? Yes or No.” Well, we think we have a better way of addressing that need in a way that’s faster, better, and cheaper. But since we don’t have an opportunity to explain, you’ll never know.

Finally, candidates have little redress or recourse if they’re not selected. Did you understand our answer to ‘Question X’ means you saving a ton of cash by not having to do Y? How do I know if you got the point?

There are also times when businesses are obliged to send out RFPs even when they’ve already decided which agency will get the gig. The hoopla is simply there to provide a response to anyone questioning selection impartiality.

There Are Better Ways To Select A Marketing Agency Than By RFP

I get that some businesses are forced to buy via RFP due to regulatory or governance reasons. I also understand some organizations use RFPs from a procurement position, so they’ll get what they want for the lowest price. If you’re buying commodity items like paper clips, then by all means issue an RFP.

But appointing a marketing agency is different. Integration, personality, and creativity count as much as capabilities, deliverables, or how many days credit you’ll get.

You’ve been reading Why RFPs Don’t Work When Selecting A Marketing Agency on KEXINO, a marketing blog for startups and small businesses by Gee Ranasinha.
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