Let me start by stating, there are some cases that a RFP makes sense. However, those cases are outweighed by situations that an honest conversation with an agency would do a lot of good.
When does a RFP make sense?
What are you going to get in a RFP response?
Most of the time in a RFP response a client is going to get a very pretty document that is heavy on filler content. The meat of the proposal will concentrate on the agency’s approach to solve client’s problem with tight scope around a discovery / planning exercise and loose scope around execution.
Why? From the agency’s perspective, to provide a thoughtful solution for your ‘ask’ will require a Discovery exercise (consulting gig). Without this exercise, recommendations may be weak and estimates skewed. Interactive is complex. Client’s environments, marketing teams, personalities, stakeholders, legacy source material, and requirements are even more daunting. Often a Discovery exercise is a great way for teams to ramp-up, provide thoughtful recommendation while mutually controlling risk - for the client not signing a hefty SOW for the full execution without ‘dating’ the agency first, for the agency this time period will assess if the client is a good fit or not (crazy).
I would be cautious with any agency that claims after reading a RFP they have all the answers. This likely means one of the following things will be the result of the project. First - the agency will run out of money since they didn’t have an accurate picture of the ask or scope. You will have the option to pay them more money, scale back scope (get less) for the same budget, or some combination of these two. The second option is the agency is much smaller than they’ve let on or the really need the business. Winning your account will help them grow, however they might not have full-time resources on your engagement or the processes / infrastructure to service your account well. In other words, what you save in cost might add additional risk to project or long-term relationship.
RFP vs. No RFP
Whether RFP or no RFP, the process comes down to:
For me personally, I think a client with realistic expectations and budget should engage an agency directly. You’ll get more ‘free’ consultation, have more face time with agency leads that will likely be shaping your project’s strategy, and have a higher likelihood of confirming you’re solving for the RIGHT problems. RFP responses often turn into a one-sided conversation led by agencies that miss the mark on real marketing conversations that need to take place.
Also consider asking agencies to show their work with you 1x1 instead of having to write about it. Agencies in this setting may be able to walk you through work that they can’t share publicly or in a RFP response (work that is under NDA or still in progress). I think it is more powerful hearing in person the nuances of projects, how agencies structure the work and complete the work from the people that worked on the project. Otherwise you’re in a situation to have to read through paragraphs of copy that may or may not tell the story in a way that best connects with your needs.
If you are still issuing a RFP, please consider:
Something To Noodle On
My first digital gig was for Resolution Media, a search engine marketing agency headquartered out of Chicago. My previous boss, Aaron Goldman, wrote an interesting blog post that breaks down the RFP process quite well. He has some great insights on why the system is broken and some ideas on how to make it more efficient.