Mention “RFP” to most marketing agency folks – at least those who have been in the business (and reasonably alert) for a little while – and you’ll probably get a few eye rolls.
It’s not that we don’t understand the internal forces that conspire to produce this kind of initiative. (We do.) It’s not that we don’t want, and need, a regular flow of new business opportunities. (We do.) It’s not that we aren’t enthused and intrigued at the notion of getting to know a prospect with a challenge we may be able to help them overcome. (We are.) And it’s not even that we realize we’ll need to spend extra time and resources we frankly hadn’t budgeted (how could we?) to make a credible, thoughtful run at the opportunity. (We do!) If it’s truly in our wheelhouse … our experience and our competitive spirit, and our sincere interest in figuring out if we can be of value, will pretty much compel us to respond.
We get it. Companies need to have a process for hiring service providers. No problem. Have a process. Run a process. Make a good decision based on the process. The source of the eye-rolling is the typical, usual, general Request For Proposal process design itself.
Your prospective agency colleagues understand the need for an objective method by which to evaluate and make decisions about prospective agency partners. And we don’t object to a competitive approach. The thing is … the process as it is most often implemented is riddled with flaws. (And as you might be *cough* aware, your internal colleagues really aren’t wild about the general agency review process, either.)
Rather than an awkward, expensive, wasteful, time-consuming “agency bake-off” – in which the speculative work required is almost never, ever used (really: it is incredibly rare for a client to produce and run a speculative campaign developed in response to an RFP) – how about conducting your agency review the quick, efficient, intelligent, modern way, instead? A quick way that lends itself easily and efficiently to the realities of our current work-from-home, work-from-anywhere existence?
This approach enables you to spend no more than a week or so (if you want to evaluate five contenders) to really, accurately determine fitness for duty, and whether there’s a productive “match.” We learned about this simple and effective method a few years back from Robb High, an experienced and capable agency business development consultant.
As Robb explained, it’s very easy (and a lot smarter) to stop wasting resources, time and energy in attempting to weed through the approximately 44,000+ marketing services providers in the US, making them fill out forms and doing exhaustive exercises developing pretend work en route to finding your “perfect fit.” As much as the process tries to commoditize marketing services … they’re really not “commoditizable.”
No. Instead of all of that, instead of the wasteful, counterproductive gyrations of the traditional “agency search,” why not make life simpler for yourself, your colleagues, your executive team? Go about it like this, instead:
1. Define your short list of agencies. This actually is pretty easy. For most marketers, your experience – and you’re in a position to make this decision because of your experience and contacts, right? – plus a little time with Google, and perhaps a phone call or two, to clarify & qualify, should enable you to narrow the field in no more than a day. Really. If it’s taking you longer than that (assuming you’re not one of the top dozen largest advertisers on Earth), you’re probably doing something wrong. You’d be looking for a few relevant identifiers: experience, talent and “basic fit.” These elements, on a first-pass basis, really are not difficult to figure out, using your powers of discernment and analysis. (Which, as a marketing professional, you have — in abundance.)
Once you have a reasonable set of contenders, five or so, maximum, set aside one working day for each firm. Invite each prospective agency to a video conference (or meeting, as things are returning to normal) at (say) 8:30 the morning of their given day. (In the “before times,” you’d certainly have done this in person, but it can be just as effective working by video.) Prior to the call, you’ll have had them sign a mutual non-disclosure agreement (NDA) – because you’re a pro. (And do everybody a favor by using a common video conferencing platform.)
2. During this call, background the prospective agency team on a real, live, actual marketing challenge that you’re currently facing. Have colleagues who ordinarily would be working with the agency participate in this background session. Ask those colleagues to make notes of their impressions: the kinds of questions the agency asks, the talent and experience of the people on the agency team, and their own individual answers to the million-dollar question: “Would it be reasonably pleasant and productive to be holed up with these folks on a video call, or, eventually, in a conference room, for a couple of hours?”
3. Work together with the agency for awhile at first. Whether you stay on the line or reconvene at various points, be a real resource for them – as you’d be, were you actually working together as client and agency – so they can ask questions, dig into the situation you’ve presented, and really get all the data they need to solve the problem. (With that NDA in place, you can feel free to share.)
4. Next, let the prospective agency work independently on the problem. But be on call during this time to answer any further questions. Allow the agency to bring on additional staff, or engage with other resources they’d typically use to help.
5. At 3:00 or so on that same day, have the agency team – all of whom you have gotten to know a little bit by now, and all of whose questions you have heard yourselves – make a brief presentation to the same internal group they met in the morning. Don’t expect finished work … but do expect strategic approaches and suggested tactics and initial creative thinking to address the problem you’ve outlined. You’re looking for the quality of thinking as it’s shared with you – not production values.
6. During this “working session,” you’ll get a snapshot sense for the chemistry that exists between agency and client teams. For this reason it’s obviously important to require that the agency participants in this exercise be the actual people who will work on your business, not just a bunch of business development gurus.
7. Ideally, the agency and client team would have dinner together at the end of this day of mutual exploration and chemistry testing. That’s not a convenient option during a pandemic, but a mutual social moment at the end of the day really is an important step in the process. And it really should not be omitted. Maybe it’s a modified virtual cocktail hour, with a little interactive Q&A thrown in … but it should be something that simply, easily provides the opportunity for participants on both sides of the call to share their interests, their personalities, and connect a little, outside of the work. This step takes chemistry to a level that is very useful in helping you understand if you can develop and maintain the kind of productive, sometimes intense, sometimes challenging relationship that exists between great client and best-fit agency.
8. Using this approach, you really could quite effectively evaluate five individual agencies in the span of one week – instead of wasting months consumed by “traditional” agency selection methods. This streamlined method would save everybody involved countless hours … not to mention thousands and thousands of dollars. To your team, you’ll look like a hero; your colleagues (really) will thank you. And, best of all, you can confidently make the right decision about the right marketing partner for your needs based on the evaluation you do in light of this approach. No “RFP process” accurately represents what it’s really, truly like for an agency and client to work together. If you think it through a little, and make it applicable to your unique situation, this one-day review approach can be a quick, reasonable and accurate substitute for real-world conditions.
9. If it happens that you’re in the market for a highly qualified marketing partner with experience delivering client success in retail … healthcare … CPG … or ticketed entertainment, MKR is ready to work with you on the basis described above. Just reach out and we’ll be glad to discuss.