There are days when I wished that I owned a roofing company or perhaps a blacktop business instead of a marketing and PR firm. Heck, I’d even take catering.
If you are working for a business or government entity or any company for that matter going through a request for proposals to find or hire a professional public relations or marketing firm, this is the wrong way to go about it—for several reasons.
Many pros at agencies are highly skeptical and wary of the RFP to begin with. Most don’t believe work will even be awarded, let alone to their firm. It’s often a crap shoot, with many organizations using the RFP process simply in an attempt to solicit free ideas or concepts.
As a result, many agencies won’t even bother to go through the process, meaning the pool of “good agencies” is diminished. Plus, almost all agencies hate the process, so most put as little effort into them as possible, because they know the chances of winning the work are slim.
In most cases, you get only standard boilerplate information on the firm, its people, their approach, rates, work product, and references, all of which could be learned in a simple meeting or online search.
So, why is the RFP still so prevalent?
Most prospects don’t know any other way. That’s how they hired the window company, so it must work for marketing, too, right? The RFP process is insulting to many agency pros—who are not vendors of a product but rather professionals who provide their expertise and thoughts and strategic insights to address a given challenge.
In some RFPs, the challenge put forth and the final result bear no resemblance to each other. I have seen RFPs for complex and comprehensive marketing programs, when only a video production company was required. I have seen RFPs requesting work that would be literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet the requester is a very small business with no intention of investing that kind of money.
There are countless horror stories surrounding the agency and RFP process. I’ve even personally had work stolen (once by the winning agency, even). Here are four main reasons that if you’re soliciting a firm, you should never, ever go through an RFP:
1. The blind RFP.
The vast majority of agencies are hired because of some professional relationship that has built up over time with the client. This has been cultivated by shared networking, background, and a host of reasons why you know and trust someone. Most marketing firms understand that before any contract is signed, you must first know someone, then trust that someone can do the work.
In a professional relationship, there’s a lot of shared work. You can’t convey in a proposal what it’s like to work with you. On paper, interpersonal skills never quite come across. Calling references is of virtually no value. After all, what agency is going to give a reference that will say bad things?
The agency may not be familiar with the client either, so why would it want to invest a lot of time crafting an RFP for an organization it may not know? Working with a firm is not like hiring a contractor to do your roof. Marketing is a strategic and collaborative process, not square footage, labor costs, and materials.
Without a relationship, it is likely the client has no intention of leaving the current agency anyway. It’s just a way to beat them up on price or get new ideas. Even if you are indeed planning on changing firms, shouldn’t there be an effort made to get to know each other? Would you get married without ever meeting or knowing some history?
2. The ubiquitous cost.
If I ran a contracting company and you asked me how much it costs to put 10 windows of this exact style and type in my building, I could tell you. I know the cost of the windows and I know my labor costs. Solicit a few bids, and you have a proposal.
The problem with that sort of thinking when it comes to marketing is that the cost of a marketing program is a little more nebulous. Yet clients often want concrete numbers. A recent RFP sent to our firm was modeled after one for a landscaping crew.
If you need the price for crafting and distributing a press release, I would say that most, if not all agencies could give you a price as long as you could answer a few basic questions. Still, agencies are smart, and if you’re shopping around for the lowest price to send a release, I doubt they’re going to invest too much time or effort in that. Agencies aren’t products. They are teams of people looking to deliver ongoing value.
Even so, one release is at least it is a specific project request and an actual price tag can likely be put to it. Unfortunately, the question most often asked is, “What should I do to market my company and how much does that cost?” That, my friend, is strategic planning. If you have a plan and you need an agency to execute a piece of it, someone can give you an estimate. But when you’re asking how much a general marketing program costs, knowing that what we could
do is virtually infinite and the corresponding costs likewise, it is virtually impossible and insulting to expect a firm to put a proposal together for free.
Most RFPs don’t even include a budget, leaving the already skeptical agency pros rolling their eyes. This is a red flag that says, “I don’t know what to do or how much anything costs, but maybe an agency will tell me the answers.” When we see no budget, it’s pretty clear this RFP is an even larger waste of time than usual. Recently, an RFP came through requesting a full plan, specs, research, comps, budgets, and timelines. After the client received zero responses, they called me and said they were actually just looking to do a few press releases about a new product they were in the process of developing. How much does that cost? I suggested they contact someone else.
3. Too many variables.
When I get asked to develop an RFP that will help “increase brand awareness,” my first question is, “What research do you have about your current brand awareness?” I’ve never had a single response to that one, because most people I ask have never tested. When I’ve been asked about “taking marketing to the next level” I ask to see all of the client’s marketing work, as well as their current plan, results, and programming. I’ve never had anyone provide that.
Without data for a strategic audit of work, there is no way a firm can craft any type of response that is worth the paper it’s written on. All it would be able to do is put together a number of “creative ideas” and some tactics around them. Clients often dismiss those ideas outright as things they’ve already tried.
There are far too many variables to look at when crafting a program, and the agency is assuming clients actually know what you need from the RFP process. Recently, we had an RFP from a business soliciting for local media relations work. It was obvious that a media relations strategy wouldn’t work for this type of business. It was a waste of time.
A good agency can direct you to the best and proper marketing strategies and tactics, not bid on them because that’s what you think
4. Failure to do basic due diligence.
If you see the inquiry, “Tell us about your firm’s history and your clients” in an RFP, it’s a warning sign that the client has done no research. Most agencies have volumes of copy to share about how wonderful they are and the clients they serve. There’s this wacky thing out there called LinkedIn, and even something called “the Facebook” that just might give you an idea of what the agency is all about.
Why is this a problem? Because sending out of the 20 agencies that receive an RFP, chances are only two or three actually specialize or have experience in your specific business. Industry-specific experience is not the only factor in choosing an agency, but it is important.
Understand the agency, even just a little bit.
What to do instead
If you’ve gone through several agencies in the past few years, or have never had one, an RFP is not the way to go. Do basic research on some agencies that might fit. Audit your own marketing efforts and communications so you can offer up meaningful discussion of challenges you’d like to address. Identify three or four firms through word of mouth, expertise you may admire, trusted colleagues who may know someone, or even through a basic online search. Review the work, look at some information on the people and their processes, and see whether they indeed offer what you feel you need.
Then call them. Meet. Ask lots of questions, like it’s a job interview. (What are your billable rates? What are your annual agency billings? We’re thinking we need to do X, how would you go about that? How do you typically work with clients, and how do you feel that has been an advantage?) If you have a strategic plan, share it. If not, that’s what you should be hiring for first, and you should expect to pay between $10,000 and $30,000 to craft one.
Have the agency give a capabilities presentation. You should be dazzled and comfortable at the same time. That can’t come across in an RFP.
Agency leaders have worked very hard to be where they are. We don’t want to be perceived as “vendors,” a very bad word often used in RFPs. A little mutual respect goes a long way, and actually sets the table for a firm that really wants to work with you. Because if we’re a “vendor,” by definition that means you’re just a “job.”
Rodger Roeser is the CEO of marketing and PR firm The Eisen Agency. The 2013 Cincinnati PRSA Large Agency of the Year, Roeser’s firm specializes in providing marketing strategy, planning and executions in various professional services industry. Email Roeser at RRoeser@TheEisenAgency.com or connect with him via LinkedIn.