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October 14, 2014
Would You Marry Someone Based on an RFP Process?
Our agency recently responded to a lengthy request for proposal (RFP). Of course, this wasn’t the first time we answered an RFP, but it got me thinking (once again) how strange this process for finding an agency is. For a brand or business, choosing the right marketing partner is an important decision and leaving it up to a written Q & A process (with little to no contact with the prospect) and possibly one presentation is risky. Would you marry someone with whom you just had a written conversation and one date? I wouldn’t, and I doubt many people would.

If I worked for an organization that was in need of a marketing firm (and didn’t require by law a formal RFP process), the following is how I would structure the search process. I believe this approach would benefit both the client and the agency. The client would be more involved in the proposal-development process and therefore likely to get better work from the agencies. The agencies would be compensated (a little) and wouldn’t be guessing because they’d get the opportunity to work collaboratively with the prospect during the process.

First, I would do some online research. I would turn to my friend, Google, and my other advisor, LinkedIn. I’d start by looking for agencies near me, then work my way out across the country. It would be great to work with a partner that is nearby, but I wouldn’t want to limit my search to geography because I’d likely miss out on finding some great agencies. At this point, my judging criteria would include:
  • Do they present themselves well online — their website, blog, and social media?
  • Are they established? Have they been around for awhile?
  • Do the principals have proven track records?
  • Is their work smart, creative and diverse?
  • Do they seem likable?
I would then ask a few trusted contacts if they know any great agencies (and what they think makes them great), if they had hired them previously, and whether or not they were still working with them. Of course, I’d want to know why or why not. I would also inquire about any negative experiences. Basically, I’d like to know if anyone had any agencies that they would formally recommend.

At this point, I would hope to have a list of no more than 10 firms. I would call each firm to describe my marketing needs and ask them to send a one-page document (within a few days) that gives an overview of their agency and explains what makes them unique. I would judge these responses on timeliness, overall appearance, how well they were written, and if their point of difference is truly distinct and relevant to my company’s needs.

By now, I would hope to have two to three agencies with which I feel comfortable scheduling a meeting (preferably in-person). In preparation for each meeting, I would put together a presentation for the agency that included:
  • Brand or business overview
  • Overall business goal(s)
  • Marketing history
  • Marketing needs
  • Budget range
  • Timeline
  • Small sample project for them to scope
  • Open discussion
I would offer each agency four weeks and a nominal fee to put together a formal presentation around the sample project. During these four weeks, each agency would have up to four hours of my time to ask questions or request additional information. In the culminating agency presentations (one hour each, including questions), I would require that my company’s full marketing team and all top executives attend.

Inviting agencies to pitch (versus putting out a blanket RFP), giving them a sample project on which to work, and allowing them access to me/my company seems like a more viable way to make a solid decision on a marketing firm. Please share your thoughts on this approach in the Comments section below. Am I off base here? Right on target? I would especially like to know what folks from the client/corporate side think.

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Emily K. Howarda marketing strategist since 1997, developed her skills at some of the country’s top marketing firms including DDB Worldwide, while working on brands like American Airlines, Pepsi, Bloomberg and Merck. Now as Vice President of Esparza, Emily’s integrated communications approach helps clients find order in marketing chaos. She’d love to hear from you and can be found on LinkedIn or @ekhoward on Twitter.
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