The RFP (Request for Proposal) process has been a tried and true tool for selecting and hiring vendors across the spectrum of services. But are they still the best means of selecting a marketing services provider? Not always. These days, many companies and agencies alike are questioning whether this formalized process – with all its time and effort – yields proportionally greater results than a less structured approach. Too often RFPs make agencies feel like they are handing out their creative intellectual property for free, or being used to help renegotiate a better deal with an existing provider.
Marsden Marketing fully expects to compete to earn our clients’ business, and we enjoy the creative process that competition brings. We have found that RFP’s often serve neither the client nor us unless we already know the issuer, have an understanding of their needs and culture, and believe there is an opportunity to develop a relationship.
RFP’s make sense when you are procuring widgets where you can be very specific in their form and features, or when you need a known set of standard, well-defined activities performed. But those scenarios are very different than looking for a partner you are evaluating for creativity; their ability to translate growth goals into specific strategies, and then produce deliverables to meet those goals. Your selection criteria should be well thought out, but an RFP is a poor tool for selecting the best fit for this type of relationship.
The Human Factor
In many cases, RFPs seek to remove subjective elements of decision making so that the company can drive to the quantitative facts and make an objective decision. When it comes to working with a marketing agency, many of the most important aspects of the deal hinge on human factors: creativity, knowledge, skill, thought processes, and communications styles. You should be seeking a long-term relationship and success will depend on great communication, an agreed upon process, and shared responsibility - squishy, qualitative, human things that are very real and require subjective judgments to assess.
Creating a Selection Process
So what replaces the RFP? You still want a process that allows you to compare like-for-like while making sure that the human elements are a good fit. Sending out a simple set of questions that narrows the field of providers based on core capabilities will get you to a shortlist of agencies worth engaging in conversation. What questions depends on what kind of business you are and what areas of marketing you’re looking for outside support. Take inbound marketing as an example – it’s an inter-related set of marketing functions combined to specifically increase your flow of leads from on-line sources. Inbound marketing includes a number of disciplines, including content creation, website design, SEO, PPC, lead generation and lead nurturing (i.e. email campaigns), and social media. In this case, rather than looking for point specific marketing companies to do each of these activities - a web design shop, an SEO company, and a content marketing firm - you need to frame your selection criteria to evaluate agencies best suited to delivers this combination of capabilities.
There are general evaluation points that can help you qualify potential partners. Here are a few to consider:
- Expertise in the specific areas you are looking for help (how many years, how many clients)
- Criteria for success – how will you measure the agency’s performance over time? (Some examples include leads generated, website conversions, growth in social media-based engagement)
- Process Evaluation (i.e. does the agency have a delivery process that helps you feel connected to the deliverables)
- Capacity to take on your project
- Work examples – this is a great way to judge quality of work, relevance to your needs, and the firm’s overall creativity
Finally, being disciplined in early communications with your potential future partner. helps to shorten the process. Include a timeframe for response and final selection. Let potential partners know why are you searching for marketing support (i.e. are you changing agencies or is it a new initiative that needs additional resources? Is this temporary support while you build out internal resources? ). Do you have a budget? If so, say so. You’ll get better responses. Rather than “sky is the limit” ideas, by framing the request financially, you’ll see how each agency will prioritize activities to meet your goals. By sharing this information, agencies can put together a realistic plan to present to you that provides the support you need to meet interim and long-term goals.
So, to find the marketing partner that is the best fit to meet your strategic goals, issuing an RFP is likely not the best method. Instead, use a disciplined selection process to find an agency that not only meets the letter of the deliverables you’re looking for, but also meets the spirit of the type of relationship you’ll want to keep for the long haul.