Five Rules for Writing Digital Agency RFPs

March 24, 2015

Many organizations require the solicitation of multiple bids for spends over a given amount. If you work for a company that does this – usually a policy driven out of procurement, this post is for you. Before we continue, however, let me qualify the rest of this post and say simply that it is difficult to overstate just how terrible a method this is for selecting an advertising agency. The best brand/agency relationships are borne of trust, shared vision and commitment, and, even, JOY – things you can’t source in a thirty page PDF out of purchasing. Still, RFP’s are a fact of life for many a marketer, so learning how to write one that gets the best creative (more on that later) is worth discussing.

Rule #1: Disclose Your Budget

No It Isn't.

No It Isn’t.

Writing an RFP without giving even basic budget parameters is like going to a car dealership not knowing if you’re shopping for a $400K Lamborghini Aventador or a Toyota Prius. You’re either lying, stupid or Leonardo DiCaprio. None of these conditions are especially well-suited for starting a relationship with an agency partner. In the ever-changing, fluid world of digital marketing, good, effective work can be done at a variety of price points, so don’t hide a small budget.

Rule #2: Don’t Send it To Everyone Under the Sun

Agency goat rodeos are a huge waste of time. Agencies that choose to participate in these roundups are not firms that value good relationships that are mutually beneficial above all else. They are agencies led by numbers people with Excel spreadsheets. You are one entry. Marketers who bid this way end up unhappy with their choice and the creative suffers. They go on to create tv shows like “The Bachelor.”

Instead of sending your RFP to a plethora of firms and requiring them to run some gauntlet of meetings, presentations and file types, get to know a few well. Find out how they work, not just what they do. What they do is about ticking the box on your checklist. How they do it is through chemistry, personal relationships, and a healthy appetite for self-critique. How elaborate are they with insulating clients from creative that better shops leave on the cutting room floor? Does the Project Coordinator understand your vision and goals as well as the Creative Director?

Timmy is a Sophomore.

Timmy is a Sophomore.

Rule #3: You’re After the Best Creative

It’s not about the structure of the account team. It’s not about the hourly rate of the SEO genius they wheeled out in the pitch meeting. It’s not about which shop has the deepest bench in some du jour skill set some executive thinks is the next big think (I’m looking at you, Responsive Web Design). It’s about broad, generalist skills and killer creative. Good creative trumps everything. Banner ads suck? No, banner ads with horrible creative sucks. Content marketing is where it’s at? No, content marketing is often just as craptacular as display. Good creative makes people watch commercials, download apps, and buy mail order razors. Do the other things matter? Yes, absolutely. But not unless the creative is rock solid.

Rule #4: Get to Know the Leadership Team

Many RFPs are written to focus on the skills of those directly involved in the client work. Understandable. At the end of the day, you need to be comfortable with the people who will be with you in the trenches. Still, those people are discovered, hired and retained by leaders in the organization. Great leaders have an easier time finding (and making) great talent. If you write an RFP that doesn’t enable you to get to know the leaders of the agency you’re considering, you won’t know what you’re really getting until it’s too late. If the leaders are too busy to help win your business, they don’t value it. You’re either too small (no crime) or they are too distracted with things that don’t matter (felonious).

Rule #5: Don’t Fall In Love with a Legacy

Every agency can point to a signature case study, marquee client or gleaming trophy on a shelf. But you’re not buying what someone else did on some other project, with some other client. You’re investing in something that is happening in the future. With different people on both sides of the table. An agency can do excellent work for Client A and fail spectacularly with Client B, though they occupy similar verticals with similar goals. Past experience is an incredibly unreliable predictor of future success in digital marketing. You didn’t pick your spouse because they used to date someone better looking than you (dear God, I hope you didn’t). You picked them because of how invested they were with you.

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