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How To Write an RFP that Helps Clients and Agencies Succeed

By Carol Levine, Co-Founder & CEO
RFP

Reposted from Forbes Agency Council, May 5, 2022

Winning new clients is the lifeblood of our agency. I have won some and lost some over my long career. What I struggle with is not in having to compete for business, but rather in the RFP process itself and how it often fails to meet its goal.

What Is An RFP?

According to Investopedia, “A request for proposal (RFP) is a business document that announces a project, describes it, and solicits bids from qualified contractors to complete it.” It is a process that brings structure to the procurement decision, allowing the risks and benefits to be identified upfront. A written brief is expected to reflect the clients’ strategy and business objectives and provide enough insight so recipients can offer their approach. 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 an evaluation and selection procedure so that an organization can demonstrate impartiality. To me, that’s wishful thinking.

I include the definition because from where I sit, I see an exercise that consumes vast amounts of time on both sides, and I find it hard to accept that the RFP process 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 records, 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 you will arrive at a mutually satisfactory budget, assuming expectations are reasonable.

Is approaching 15 firms, interviewing eight and getting five to pitch with full-blown plans and granular budgets and timelines the way to go? Are you looking for a team capable of generating transformational concepts that become even better after getting to know you first? Most agency heads I know could easily live with formal RFPs for large, complex or multiyear mandates. But to me, the RFP is overused or poorly developed, both impacting their value.

Is an RFP Necessary?

Does the RFP process guarantee that what you see is what you’ll get? When I am on the purchasing end, I favor an informal meeting to answer that gnawing question: Do we want to work with these folks?

While it’s no secret that RFPs mean a sizeable amount of investment, they won’t disappear anytime soon. 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.

How To Write An Effective RFP

Based on my experience, here are some tips on how to write an effective RFP:

  • Be specific. Tell agencies what you want, what’s important to you. Yes, we are vendors, but we’re generally sincere and good people.
  • Be discerning. It’s quality that counts. Sending an RFP to 20 firms tells us you’re unclear about what you need. The more you know about the firms before you invite them, the happier you’ll be and the less time you’ll spend finding the fit. Many agencies, including ours, will decline an RFP if more than three or four agencies are in the running.
  • Budget matters. What purpose is served if you get ideas that cost 10 times your budget? Firms can be creative if they know what the budget is, even if it’s not huge. Many agencies will not accept an RFP invite if the budget is not provided.
  • Be generous with your time. 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’s hard to deliver bad news, but honest feedback is constructive. For the RFP system to work, agencies need to believe that it’s a worthwhile exercise.
  • Tell us who is pitching. I fail to see the downside of knowing the competition and if we are on a level playing field. Let us make an educated decision on whether to respond.
  • 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’re meeting with.

Questions Agencies Should 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 five or more agencies are pitching, it’s unlikely we will participate.
  • Is the time frame 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 rarely flies unless the agency is desperate or has an over-capacity of capable staff that is able to work on unbillable work for an RFP (something that is highly unlikely these days with talent shortages).
  • Has this client worked with a PR firm, and do they have reasonable expectations? Having numerous failed agency relationships is a red flag.
  • What is the client’s reputation? 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 to implement internally? Is it likely to result in a mandate? 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.

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 CEO of energi PR and a though leader on Forbes Agency Council. To learn more about energi PR visit  www.energipr.com  and follow us on LinkedIn, TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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