Guest Post By By Rodger Roeser.
Truly, there are days when I wished that I owned a roofing company or perhaps a blacktop business – heck, even catering.
The simple fact is, if you are a business or government entity or any company for that matter going through an RFP to find or hire a professional public relations or marketing firm, this is the wrong way to go about it – for a number of reasons.
For starters, most agencies are highly skeptical and wary of the RFP to begin with.
Most don’t even believe work will even be awarded, let alone awarded 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.
So, for this reason, many if not most agencies won’t even bother to go through the process, meaning the pool of “good agencies” is diminished.
And 100 percent of the 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 (so, in most cases, you’re getting junk anyway – standard boilerplate on the firm, the people, their approach, rates, work product and references – all easily discovered 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 we hired the window company, must work for marketing, too, right?
The RFP process is also insulting to many agencies who are not “vendors of a product,” but rather professionals who provide their expertise and thoughts and strategic insights based to properly address a given challenge. Typically, we sell “time and knowledge” not a physical “thing.”
I have seen RFPs where the “challenge” put forth and what ends up being contracted for bear no resemblance to one another.
I have seen RFPs for complex and comprehensive marketing programs who in reality had only the intention of hiring a video production company.
I have seen RFPs requesting work that would be literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet they are a very small business with no intention of investing that kind of money.
I’ve been involved in the RFP process knowing full well there is no chance the client is changing firms, they just need to show “procurement” other prices so they can say it was “competitively” bid.
There are hundreds if not thousands or horror stories surrounding the agency and RFP process. I’ve personally had work stolen (once by the winning agency, even).
Here are four main reasons-
. . .marketing services firms should never, ever go through an RFP and what should be done instead to conduct a professional agency search.
1. The Blind RFP
The vast majority of agencies are hired because of some professional relationship that has been built up over time between agency leadership and their client team.
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 there is ever a “buy” you must first know, then trust that someone can do the work.
Having a professional relationship with another professional is important because you will be working with them – a lot.
You can’t answer that question in an RFP.
What are you like to work with? On paper, the interpersonal skills can never truly come across.
Calling references is of virtually no value – after all, what agency is going to give a reference that will say bad things.
And think about this: The agency may not know you either, so why would they want to invest a lot of time crafting an RFP for someone or some organization they may not know let alone have a desire to work with.
Working with a firm is not like hiring a contractor to do your roof.
You will have (hopefully) a mutually beneficial and long lasting partnership with someone you need to rely upon and someone you need to trust – often.
Marketing is a strategic and collaborative process, not square footage, labor costs and materials.
And, without a relationship, it is likely there is no intention of leaving the existing agency anyway – but rather beat them up on price, or get new ideas to provide to the incumbent agency.
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? Probably not.
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 badabing! – you have a proposal.
The problem with that sort of thinking when it comes to marketing is “how much does a marketing program cost?”
Sadly, that is a very common question – and in my opinion, shows an incredible level of ignorance and naivety on the part of a prospective client.
A recent RFP sent to our firm was modeled after the RFP they sent out for a roofing job. One last year was modeled after the landscaping crew RFP.
If you need an exact price to craft and distribute a press release to a given “list,” I would say that most, if not all agencies could give you a price as long as you could answer a few basic questions, but 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.
Why, because agencies aren’t “products” they are a team of people looking to deliver ongoing value – putting out a single release will accomplish nothing, so why bother.
It also speaks volumes about how the agency can expect to be “treated.”
Low price vendor or strategic partner.
But, at least it is a specific project request and an actual price tag can likely be put against it — just that no firm will likely bother to respond.
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 called strategic planning – and yes, there is a fee to develop a strategic plan.
If you have a plan and you need an agency to execute a piece of it, again, likely they can give you an estimated scope of work and price.
But when asking how much it costs to do a marketing program 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 this together at no charge.
There are far too many unknowns.
A strategic plan is collaborative between agency and client, takes time, research and creativity, and needs budgetary and timeline realities.
Most RFPs don’t even bother to put a budget in the RFP – leaving an already skeptical agency rolling their eyes.
This is a big 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 the RFP is an even larger waste of time than normal. Recently, an RFP came through requesting a full plan, specs, research, comps, budgets and timelines.
After they 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 they’ve never tested.
When asked about “taking their marketing to the next level” I ask to see all of their marketing work, their current plan, results and programming and again, I’ve never had one provide that.
How on earth can an agency, through the RFP process, take your business to the next level without knowing exactly what you’re doing now?
Or, how can they increase intangibles without the ability to know your current standing.
Correct – it’s impossible in the RFP process.
These are two strategic items in a good strategic plan that can create measurement KPIs and review what has worked, what hasn’t and how to make it better.
Without the ability for a good firm to perform a strategic audit of work, there is no way they can craft any type of response that is worth the paper it’s written on.
All they would be able to do is put together a number of “creative ideas” and some tactics around them.
And, many would look at that, say “we did that once, it didn’t work,” and the agency would have no idea.
There are far too many variables to look at when crafting a program, and the agency is assuming you 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. Just a complete waste of time and, if they actually DO hire a firm, in this case, a waste of money and resources.
A good agency will be able to direct the client to the best and proper marketing strategies and tactics – not “bid” on them because that’s what you think you need.
Asking for bids to “do PR” with no context of what stories you “may” have is a genuine waste.
4. Failure to Do Basic Due Diligence
My favorite question in an RFP is “tell us about your firm’s history and your clients.”
Again, major red flag.
This says: “I haven’t even bothered to do the most basic research on that new fangled internet thingy.”
Most agencies have volumes of copy to share with you about how wonderful they are and the clients they served.
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 RFPs to 20 agencies (or more) is a waste of time and effort because of those 20 agencies, chances are only 2 or 3 actually specialize or have experience in your specific business.
Industry specific experience is not the only factor, but it is important.
As is your budget.
If your budget is $20K, and you’re sending your RFP to the 10 largest firms in America, you’re going to be disappointed at the response.
If you’re B2B and you’re sending to agencies that provide marketing services to fast food franchises, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
Understand the agency, even just a little bit.
Ask about annual billings, that’s a fair question – because if you have an idea that your budget is $20K, you ARE going to be working with a small firm, a large one will likely not even bother to respond and if they do, do you want to be the client billing $20K annually with the firm that has $20M revenue annually?
No, you don’t.
What Should Be Done Instead
If a marketer has gone through several agencies in the past few years, an RFP is not the way to go.
Ideally, they do some basic research on right-fit agencies and their own marketing efforts, then offer up a meaningful discussion of current challenges.
Identify a few firms (3 or 4, each should be somewhat similar because their challenges are known) through word of mouth, expertise you may admire, trusted colleagues who may know someone or even through a basic online search.
Then call them, have a conversation. Meet. Ask questions, lots and lots of questions – like 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 need to be hiring for first, and you should expect to pay between $10K — $30K to craft one.
Have the agency give a capabilities presentation. You should be dazzled and comfortable at the same time. Neither can come across in an RFP.
Agencies don’t want to be perceived as “vendors,” a very bad word often used in an RFP.
A little mutual respect goes a long way, and actually sets the table for the future – a firm that really wants to work with you.
Because if “we’re a vendor,” by definition that means “you’re the job.”
Create a relationship.
Share goals and objectives and discuss some possible alternatives and ways to get there.
Developing a relationship will almost certainly ensure you have a better experience working with a strategic partner aligned with your strategic goals.
Rodger Roeser is the CEO of Greater Cincinnati’s premier 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 the professional services industry – healthcare, financial, legal, manufacturing, franchise, real estate, HR, and technology. Roeser can be reached at RRoeser@TheEisenAgency.com or via LinkedIn.