The ABCs of RFPs

Looking for the perfect partner? Start the courtship process off right.

By Beth Labreche

Only a few companies started new communication campaigns during this recession. Many were in the market for as many ideas as possible, primarily because of their hesitancy to spend money in the first place. So they issued a request for proposal (RFP), and agencies responded to stay competitive, use up some of their extra time and because they were hungrier for work.
If you're interested in using an RFP to find a communications partner, here's some advice on how to use it to your (and the agency's) greatest advantage:

Who to invite
Be realistic. Don't send your RFP to an agency that has clients much larger than you. You may get them to respond during this tough economic period but, when times get better, you will likely become a lower priority.

Start with local lists. Two primary directories in the Twin Cities rank agencies by specific services like PR or advertising. Unfortunately, these lists don't accurately categorize agencies that provide multiple, integrated services-and these are likely the ones that would most benefit your business. So start with existing lists and then dig deeper using Google and by visiting agencies' sites to learn more about how they serve their clients.

Ask those businesses whose marketing you admire. If they are happy with their agency, they will be ready and willing to provide a reference to you.

What to ask for
What is your business philosophy? Let agencies walk you through their viewpoint on the most effective marketing mix. Let them tell you how they think. See if they're clear about their own value proposition, which would mean they'd be able to help you clear up your own.

What is your approach? Don't ask an agency to start spitting out ideas. That's presumptuous on both sides, and it will only romance you into an idea that may be off-target once your market research is done. Learn about an agency's approach, not specific tactics, to understand their processes and how they would apply what they do best to your situation.

Who would be my team? (And why are they on the team?) Make sure agencies don't just give you a slew of bios. Dig deeper to ask why those particular people would add value to your assignment. Do they have a special skill or experience in a niche industry that they would leverage on your behalf?

Make the most of their presentation. After you make a short list of agencies you'd like to meet, based on their RFP responses, ask them for something different at the presentation than what you asked for in the RFP. Tell the agency specifically what aspects of their response you'd like to explore more deeply, then have them flesh out the information further. Skip asking for their qualifications-you wouldn't be meeting with them if they couldn't do the job. Make sure to allow enough discussion time, which lets you role-play what it would be like to work with them.

What not to ask for
Don't ask for details that already exist. Do enough research on the basics of the agency in order to choose them for the RFP. Then don't ask for the known details like office locations, number of employees or biggest clients, since these things should already be on their website.

Don't crunch their numbers_yet. Most agencies are competitively priced or they wouldn't be in business. Agencies use the billable hour, which means­-even if their pricing is slightly different-the scale of a project can be managed to fit into a reasonable budget range.

Making your RFP more strategic will make it work harder for you. The more thinking you put into it now, the less you'll have to spend later looking for a replacement agency.