Despite the moments of pure joy or bruised ego that I might admit to experiencing over the years, winning new clients is the lifeblood of our agency. I have won some and lost some over a long and storied career. What I struggle with is not having to compete for business, but rather the RFP process, and how it often fails to realize its goal. Tips on how to write an RFP can help both sides work more effectively.
What is an RFP?
The RFP (request for proposal) is a process bringing structure to the procurement decision allowing the risks and benefits to be identified up front. A written brief is expected to reflect the clients’ strategy and short/long-term business objectives and provide enough insight so that the recipients can offer a matching perspective. Therefore, in principle the RFP requires the issuer to specify what it proposes to purchase; alerts suppliers that the selection process is competitive and will generally follow a structured evaluation and selection procedure, so that an organization can demonstrate impartiality. For the most part, that’s wishful thinking.
I include the definition of what an RFP is, because in the world I live in these requests take on a life of their own, consuming vast amounts of time and effort on both sides of the equation. I find it hard to accept that the process itself could take much credit for a successful client agency relationship.
The problems with most RFPs
Finding the right agency partner might be easier if we considered the end game and looked at how successful businesspeople make important decisions. They use research, word of mouth, track record, reputation, references or more often than not, gut feelings and chemistry. As for budget, if you pick the firm aligned to your corporate culture and their understanding of your business, I’d venture that you will arrive at a mutually satisfactory budget, assuming expectations are reasonable.
Is approaching fifteen firms, interviewing eight and getting four to pitch with full blown plans and granular budgets the way to go? Are you looking for a specific campaign to implement or a team able to generate great, strategic transformational concepts that become even better after getting to know you? It’s true that corporate governance demands a stringent procurement process and most of the agency heads I know could easily live with that for large, complex, annual or multi-year mandates. But as I observe, the RFP is mostly overused or poorly developed, both impacting their value.
Is an RFP to pick an agency necessary?
Does the RFP process guarantee that what you see is what you see is you’ll get? When I am on the purchasing end, I favor an informal meeting as a first step where it becomes abundantly clear as to first impressions and that gnawing question “can and do we want to work with these folks”. While it’s no secret that RFPs can mean a huge investment of time and money across the board, they are not likely to disappear anytime soon, though some agencies have developed a screening process to improve the win/loss ratio. I am all for improving the process and promoting a best practice RFP that satisfies clients and agencies alike. After all, we want to be good business partners and have a little fun together.
Tips on how to write an effective RFP
- Be specific. Tell us what you want, what’s important to you. Yes, we are vendors, but we are generally sincere and good people.
- Be discerning – its quality that counts. Sending the RFP to 20 firms tells us you are unclear about what you need. The more you know about the firms BEFORE you invite them, the happier you will be and the less time you will spend finding the fit.Many agencies, including ours will decline the RFP if more than 3 or 4 agencies are in the running.
- Budget matters. What purpose is served if you get ideas that cost ten times the budget you have? Firms can be awfully creative if they know what the budget is, even if it is not huge. Likely they will provide some additional ideas to whet your appetite.Many agencies will not accept an RFP invite if the budget is not provided.
- Be as generous with your time as the agencies are with theirs. Submissions made by email are void of the human element that is fundamental in a trusted relationship. Wherever possible meet the agency and have them present in person. This is easier to manage when only a few are pitching.
- Provide feedback. It is hard to deliver bad news, but honest feedback is constructive. For the RFP system to work, agencies need to believe that it is a worthwhile exercise.
- Tell us who is pitching. I fail to see the downside of knowing the competition. This lets us know if we are on a level playing field. Since we know our colleagues, we can make an educated decision on whether to respond.
- If your selection comes down to something not asked for in the RFP, give the other firms the courtesy of providing that information as well.
- Mutual respect is key. PR agencies work hard to present their credentials and recommendations. If you have no intent to replace an incumbent, putting out an RFP is not constructive for your current agency or the firms you are meeting with.
Questions agencies need to ask when answering an RFP
- Should we participate? While keeping new business flowing is a must, we are cautious about where to devote our resources. We have criteria to evaluate the risk/benefit of participating in a pitch and pay attention to how the RFP is written and structured.If there isn’t a written brief, if no budget is indicated (not even a range), if 5 agencies are pitching, it’s unlikely we will participate.
- Is the timeframe reasonable? Cynicism comes from having a few days to prepare and waiting months for a response.Unless you are a Fortune 500, giving a three-day deadline to a vague RFP rarely flies unless the agency is desperate, or has a lot of folks on the beach.
- Has this client worked with a PR firm, do they understand and have reasonable expectations? Having numerous failed agency relationships are a red flag.
- What is the client’s reputation and values? Canada’s leading PR agencies comprise a relatively small group and many of us are friends and colleagues. How companies value their agencies is as important as the reverse.
- Is the RFP bona-fide? Is it intended to get the incumbent back on track? Is it an attempt to get ideas that will be implemented internally? Is it likely to result in a mandate? Like all businesses, the past few years have been challenging for agencies and clients alike. The capacity of senior, skilled PR practitioners is limited, precious and comes at a high cost – which is why we’ve become super strategic in evaluating opportunities.
While I believe that clients can find more efficient ways to engage an agency, I respect the need for healthy competition and we’re more than ready to throw our hat in the ring. Knowledge is power, so if everyone is set up for success, we’re thrilled to be at the table.
Carol Levine, APR, Fellow CPRS is co-founder and managing partner of energi PR and a former Chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms. She can be reached at email@example.com. To learn more about energi PR visit www.energipr.com and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.