Talk to PR and marketing agency types, and you’ll hear all manner of moans and groans over Requests For Propopsals (RFPs) or their lesser-seen siblings, the Request For Information (RFI) or Request For Quote (RFQ).
Why? Well, part of it is just Pollyanna-ish thinking about how business comes in the door — a surprising number of agencies grow their practices through purely organic networking and word-of-mouth marketing. This isn’t a bad move (more on that in another post), but it’s hard to be known by all the right people all the time. Now and then, a great piece of work will come up and you’re going to have to walk through the beauty pageant just like everyone else.
But the other reason agencies sometimes shy away from competitive bids is a little more basic: There are a lot of unreasonable, unclear or otherwise undesirable RFPs out there. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
I answer a lot of PR and marketing RFPs, I’ve written many as well for colleagues and clients, and when I worked client side I had the opportunity to go through the whole process from that angle as well. A really good RFP should do a few things:
- It should create a level playing field for you, the client, to make apples-to-apples comparisons of key factors. Your job is hard enough without having to compare Agency A’s 40-page proposal to Agency B’s 5-page document.
- It should give respondents the basics they need to determine whether the project is a good potential fit or not. Not all shops do all things well, and your RFP should screen for that. This can be a function of budget, of anticipated tasks and hours, etc. There are may ways to lay this out, but one way to find out how respondents think is to list “two legs of the stool” and let respondents offer counsel on the third leg. Examples include:
- You can list one-year goals and anticipated budget, asking respondents to outline objectives and strategies they might undertake with that direction.
- You can list goals and objectives, requesting a strategy outline and budget.
- You can list strategic business needs that the PR effort should address, and ask the respondents to develop goals and a rough budget. (This is the highest-level approach and isn’t appropriate under some circumstances.)
- It should filter for two types of experience:
- Expertise in a horizontal market (i.e., you define the types communications services you need, such as annual reports, international media relations or crisis communications); and
- Expertise in a vertical market (i.e., broad-scale B2B communications, prior success with social media or online networking portals, etc.).
- Finally, it should respect the confidentiality and work product of the respondents. There are a lot of strong opinions in the PR world about how much (or rather, how little) original strategy you should put into a proposal – a shocking (to me) number of firms and solo practitioners simply won’t put anything other than basic qualifications into a proposal.
The former client-side guy in me says that makes for weak proposals, and I wouldn’t choose someone who didn’t show me a good deal of how they think and develop strategy. However, in order to foster that kind of thinking in an RFP process, you need to respect confidentiality by allowing respondents to mark some or all of their proposals as confidential and not subject to wide review. (This is a thornier issue in the public sector, where I chase a lot of work, but shouldn’t be an issue for your project.)
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