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Picking the right digital marketing agency can be difficult for advertisers. Fancy marketing materials with jaw-dropping case studies often make it challenging to compare agencies objectively and identify the best fit.
Over the years, we have received and responded to hundreds of requests for information (RFIs) and requests for proposals (RFPs), ranging from one-page informal requests to precisely subdivided behemoths containing nested question numbers such as “8.2.28.c.” It is apparent when advertisers invest forethought and effort into developing an RFP pertinent to their own business and thus were more likely to attract responses that were particularly distinct and insightful. The following are some tips to help you solicit high-quality responses and mitigate the agony of the process in general.
Know What You Want
The first step to developing a relevant RFP is to identify your business needs and the characteristics of your ideal partner. Involve your internal stakeholders and decision-makers from the beginning to discuss how important some of the following factors are:
- Multiple specialist agencies vs. a “one-stop shop”
- Small/medium vs. enterprise-level agencies
- Tactical support vs. strategic leadership
- Licensed vs. proprietary software
- Managing the RFP in-house vs. outsourcing the process
If you are not sure what might be the best fit for your business, attend trade shows and conferences to meet other advertisers and gather insights. Also, consider reaching out to other companies (probably outside of your immediate competitive set) that were facing similar challenges. Keep in mind, however, that nobody will understand your business as well as you do and only you will be able to best determine the agency requirements and evaluation criteria for your RFP.
Define the Selection Process
RFPs are useful tools to consistently procure information and objectively compare agencies, but realize that they are just one component of the entire selection process. Using an RFI and/or doing a little research to limit the number of agencies you release your RFP to will reduce the amount of reading you will have to do and will make the selection process much more manageable. The following is a suggested course of events:
- Request for Information (RFI) - Optional: Release a short RFI to determine agencies’ interest in your RFP, ensure agencies meet your minimum requirements, and narrow down your RFP list to 3-5 potential agencies. If you are trying to reach dozens of agencies, use an RFI instead of an RFP. For example, if using a specific platform is mandatory, use an RFI to quickly weed out the agencies that cannot support it.
- Request for Proposals (RFP): Release an RFP to 3-5 agencies to fully understand their general approach, capabilities, and methodologies. If you have already done your research and shortlisted 2-4 agencies, consider expediting the selection process by skipping this step entirely. Speak to the agencies directly to verify their capabilities and request that topics that would have been in the RFP are fully addressed in the presentation.
- Presentations: After providing them with data, solicit presentations from 2-4 agencies to understand the specific approach they will take for your business and to introduce them to upper management. Never make a decision based solely on the RFP even if there is a clear frontrunner; request a presentation to at least meet your potential partner and confirm that they will be a good fit.
Allow Sufficient Time
The RFP deadline should be at least 3-4 weeks after the release date. Keep in mind that if you rush the process you might receive fewer responses or boilerplate proposals. The following is a suggested timeline:
Pre-RFP Release - Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) executed and “intent to respond” notifications requested/received from agencies so you know how many responses to expect (and to potentially include additional agencies if there are very few initial replies).
Standardize the Response Format
Neutralize the instinct to “judge an RFP response by its cover” by specifying a standardized electronic format. This will allow you to better focus on the content rather than fancy formatting or graphics.
This can be particularly difficult to do if you request “hard copies” since the weight of the paper, vividness of the colors, type of binding, etc. may subconsciously influence your impression of the content. Also, keep in mind that there can be discrepancies between the “perceived quality” of the response and the “actual quality” of the service delivery (hint: the latter is more important than the former).
It is perfectly acceptable for your RFP to use multiple formats. Use a spreadsheet format for yes/no, numerical, or other short (1-2 word) responses that you would like to collate across agencies for a master “at-a-glance” view.
Since the viewable area of a spreadsheet varies depending on the user’s screen resolution, advertisers should use a document format for longer responses to minimize the need to constantly adjust cell dimensions and/or scroll. If you choose to use an RFI, consider issuing it in spreadsheet format while releasing the RFP in document format.
Provide Enough Context About the Business
If you cannot or do not want to provide something during the RFP process (for example, AdWords account access), specify that early on to curtail the requests or questions you will otherwise inevitably receive about it. However, do not expect meticulous details of how agencies plan to take you from A to B if you decide not to provide access to historical performance data, but be sure to include at least the following:
*Advertisers not willing to provide transparency into fee potentials risk limiting the number and quality of RFP responses as well as increasing the time and energy they will need to devote to the process. Top agencies may pass on the opportunity or not invest the proper resources to prepare a response befitting your RFP. Withholding internal initial budgets while merely stating that “budgets are uncapped” as long as an agency can deliver a specific efficiency level can also result in a breakdown during negotiations. This can occur late in the selection process, after significant time has been invested on both sides, if the actual size of the opportunity and proposed fees of the selected agency are not mutually beneficial and equitable.
The Golden Rule
Agencies truly appreciate it when advertisers realize that, similar to their own business, resources must be prioritized and that many hours of unbilled time and effort get dedicated to responding to their RFP. After all of the RFP responses have been received, periodically sending out status updates to all agencies, especially if you deviate from your original timeline or have ultimately made a decision, will not only help you avoid being bombarded with inquiries about the latest developments every few days, but is also an expression of a simple, yet highly valued, professional courtesy.
In the event that things with your current agency are just not working out, hopefully these tips will help you successfully choose your next digital marketing partner.
Stay tuned to the RKG Blog next week when we will outline some sample differentiating questions you can use in your own RFP.
11/18 Update: Our follow-up post with recommended Digital Marketing RFP questions is now live.