One of the most common tools in finding the right agency partner is the RFP – Request for Proposal. This tool allows an organization to gather information about several potential partners in a uniform manner, comparing the proverbial apples to apples.
Although the notion of an RFP is fairly standard, there does not exist a universally-used format. Most organizations develop their own vehicle for the RFP process, commonly using Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, online purchasing solutions and various combinations of these. It is possible to find downloadable generic templates online, but a high degree of customization is required on these to ensure effectiveness and relevance.
The agency-client relationship is more strategic and deeper than a typical vendor-customer relationship, and thus great care must be taken to ensure the proper “fit” during any agency search process.
The RFP process is not ideal for either creative agencies or brand owners, as expertly summarized in this Forbes article. Based on our extensive experience reviewing and responding to RFPs, we’ve created a few suggestions to help you get the most out of your agency RFP despite this reality.
(Note: We intend for this information to be fairly universal to RFPs for most marketing agency types, not just the Event Agency RFP process.)
- Don’t be too restrictive: Creative agencies do not fit in little boxes… in any way. While a creative agency is certainly able to fill in cells on an Excel sheet, this is not the best way to understand the agency and their strengths. This holds especially true for the more visual aspects of marketing like creative agencies, exhibit designers, branding/graphic designers and the like. Be sure to allow submission of a supporting document or capabilities presentation… and view that first to really get a feel for the agency! Most agencies can offer case studies which offer tremendous insight; these should be requested in the agency’s format for best representation.
- Introduce yourself: Provide a background on your company and products, a branding guide, samples of recent projects, outline of current/future strategic and tactical initiatives and a summary of the marketing goals to be served by the potential partner. Be sure to describe your target markets and personas, include a bit about your close competitors and provide a mood board. It is helpful to outline the primary team structure for interfacing with the agency, and indicate where other agency linkages may occur. The more the agency understands your organization, the better they can respond.
- Know what you need: One of the first questions from any sharp responding agency asks after what is and is not working in your current relationship, and why you are conducting an RFP. This is really critical, because a potential new partner wants to be sure to address your pain points, tailoring their response and eventually their service around your needs. We’ve seen countless RFPs where the written focus is one thing (budget overruns, for example), yet in follow-up conversations it is revealed that some other aspect (i.e. level of customer service) is the real driver. It is important that an RFP is crafted with equal input from all invested parties so that the agency can adequately express their capacity to address ALL of those areas. Where possible, specify the relative importance of elements like price, quality, value-added services, account management, emergency support, creative capacity, etc. It is also critical to provide a budget range, and the degree of confidence in that budget for the term of a project.
- Consider who to
invite: A very detailed RFP is going to generate an enormous amount
of detailed information, and is therefore generally sent to a small number of
agencies – typically 5-8. If the list is
larger, there are two ways to reduce it to a more manageable size:
- One is to consider conducting an RFI (Request for Information) first in order to gather basic information. This step usually requests basic statistical or capacity information rather than more detailed philosophical replies gathered in an RFP. The addition of an RFI may add a few weeks to your process, but will give you insights into the agencies’ structures that could help shorten the list.
- Another way to lighten the burden of incoming information is to check resources available from industry associations. For example, the Experiential Designers and Producers Association (EDPA) manages a “Trust and Transparency Certification” process which pre-screens agencies through RFI/RFP processes. Clients can take advantage of this to condense their information-gathering needs. (Note: Acer is a proud recipient of this status, one of just fifteen certified exhibit houses in North America.)
- Be courteous of the agency’s resources: The agency is taking time – often many hours from several different resources – to respond to your questions, and sometimes providing design concepts or sample work. If you are requesting design, remember that the ideal design process is highly collaborative with the client, and RFP process usually works against that by restricting contact between agency resources and client team members. Design concepts made with information provided in an RFP are therefore not created under ideal conditions. The RFP process is not the time to request revisions or changes to a design concept, but rather to get a feel for how the agency interprets your brand and meets the stated requirements.
- Understand the industry: Although procurement teams can be extremely helpful in an RFP process, industry experts must be involved to ensure that questions are high quality in order to facilitate the high quality answers needed to best inform the decision-making process.
- By way of example, consider one exhibit RFP which was generated by a contract purchasing team based in a different country than the US-based events team. The RFP requested respondents to provide “average shipping cost for an exhibit in the US” with no size specifications, no city provided, no timing, and no weights. A basic understanding of the workings of shipping custom exhibitry in the US would have prevented extensive delays in the potential client’s RFP process. In this example, the go-around on this one section literally added weeks to the process as respondents ended up making certain assumptions in order to put a number in the box and the organization had no relevant basis for comparison.
- Set clear expectations: Be sure deadlines are well-communicated and reasonable for both the RFP process (response due date, additional questions due date, etc.), and for the initial resulting work (publication dates, show move-in date, etc.).
The RFP process should be regarded as a two-way street which allows the agency to get to know you, and tailor their response to your needs, just as much as it allows you to gain insight into the agency. Ultimately, every agency/client relationship should be a partnership, and the RFP is the critical first step in setting that foundation.