Imagine walking in to your local bike shop, wanting to buy a new bike for your 7-year-old son. The nice gentleman in the shop greets you and asks how he can help. Your only response is that you need a bike, one for your son. He asks what type of bike the ‘lil guy is wanting…with no response. Are you thinking a BMX bike, a mountain bike, one with Batman on it, he asks. Still, you don’t respond. Ok, so the bike ‘salesman’ then asks how much you are looking to spend – maybe that can help narrow it down. You continue to hold out, stone faced.
This seems to be many people’s perception of the Request for Proposal (RFP) process – both agency and clients among Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. There’s a lot of anxiety when there doesn’t need to be.
Almost by definition, an RFP is simply a company asking for help. So let’s take a more pragmatic approach. As a general consumer, if you were going to make a big purchase, wouldn’t you want to 1) get multiple offers and 2) do some research on potential suppliers? If not, you’re a fool.
That said, I understand where some of that anxiety comes from. I’ve seen some RFPs that are simply a list of bullet points that provide little information for agencies to put together a relevant and useful offer. These types of RFPs have given the process a bad name, no doubt. To the contrary, I’ve seen some RFPs that are incredibly detailed where they provide clear information on the three key pieces that any project needs to have defined: scope, timeline, and budget.
So with that, I wanted to provide some advice to any company looking to issue an RFP: invest in the process. That’s really all it boils down to – investing in the process to make sure what you get back is sufficient, realistic, and an efficient use of everyone’s time. An investment means doing the following things:
Focus on quality over quantity. Spend some time upfront understanding each of the agencies that you’d like to invite to respond to the RFP. Whether you do that through a more simple RFI process or do the research on your own. By inviting fewer, more qualified agencies you will reap two primary benefits. One is that you won’t be drowning in responses and can therefore focus on each individual response. Two, you will not turn off more qualified agencies that might otherwise be a perfect fit. At Terralever, it is not uncommon for us to respectfully bow out of responding if there are more than 5 agencies vying for the business. Of course, there are always exceptions, perhaps a case where we are familiar with the business or the client. In these cases, though, there is always a debate internally about how many resources to put towards a response. As an organization wanting to find the right partner for your project – you want an agency to put their best foot forward.
Provide a budget. Even if it’s a range, it is critical to the process to provide some sort of budget. Otherwise, you will get a far broader range than what you had in mind from the outset. This will cause additional work for everyone involved. In talking to a former colleague she told me a story of her first experience issuing an RFP. Her team did not provide a budget and ended up getting bids from $5,000 to $84,000. The low budget didn’t provide enough services and the high budget provided too many. After all was said and done, she had to go back to each agency and ask for a revised bid. Lesson learned.
Provide as much detail as possible. The better the scope is defined, the better quality the responses will be. The RFP should be thorough in describing both the problem at hand and the intended work that you presume needs to be done. I say presume because sometimes what is needed is different than what the RFP is requesting. Because strategy is such a big part of what our clients expect from us, we will always ask if you are open to hearing alternate solutions.
What if you really don’t know what a realistic budget should be? For that matter, what if you don’t know the skills needed to do the work or the timeframe to complete the project? That’s reasonable, especially given the pace at which digital marketing moves. If the project is small you can probably get away with doing your own basic research online. If the project is larger in scale, think about engaging one of the agencies that you are more comfortable with to help you write the RFP or put together a more thoughtful budget that will help direct your own internal conversations. Bottom line – all of this should be done prior to the formal RFP process.
Our success rate with RFPs is high. No doubt, it has a lot to do with the reputation of Terralever, but it also has to do with how we approach the process. We don’t work on every RFP. In fact, we decline the majority of them, referring them out to a better option. The ones we do respond to, however, we invest in and try to be as thoughtful about them as we can. That’s the least we could do. After all, it’s what we ask of you.
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