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Hiring a Marketing Agency? Rethink Your RFP Process

Group of Sales People at a Table

In my time at Element Three, I have heard the words “why did they decide to do a RFP?” more times than I can remember. It is never said with an air of superiority, but rather with genuine curiosity about why a company elected to go the request for proposal (RFP) route. You see, at Element Three, we are not huge fans of the RFP. It is not that we won’t do them—we just find the end result of the engagement is much better nine times out of ten when it is not kicked off via a formalized introduction on paper.

There are three main reasons why we rarely decide to tackle the RFP when we receive one:

  • Our clients never get a full view of Element Three (or anyone else) on paper.
  • You cannot tackle the chemistry question via a document.
  • You are being served up everyone’s best work via case studies, and not getting a peek behind the curtain.

Buyers can’t see an agency’s whole picture through a list of questions.

I would venture to say it is almost impossible to really know someone by their answers to a list of questions. This is essentially like giving a group of job candidates a written test, reading the responses, and hiring one of them without ever interviewing them in person. Yes, you’re going to evaluate based on a candidate’s resume. But aren’t there ways to get a more complete view?

The answer to that, in our mind, is yes. First and foremost, you can take a look at the agency’s website. Poke around the work they’ve shared online—but know they’re only showing you a sampling of the best work available. To dig a little deeper, you absolutely need to speak with your potential agency.

The most successful relationships we’ve been a part of have always, always started with a conversational introduction. This is a chance for you to question the agency. Which companies and industries have they excelled with in the past? How did they start? What is their process for onboarding a new client? These are all important questions to be asking, as they give you insight into how the business is set up, how it runs, and what your experience in working with them would be like.

Conversely, it is also an opportunity for the agency to get to know you. It is always helpful on our end to know whether you’ve engaged with an agency before. If yes, what went well? What went, let’s say, not so well? If no, why are you choosing to do so now? What was the inflection point in your business that led to this decision? How are you going to be making your final choice? Whether you’re a seasoned buyer or new to the space, these questions reveal what is important in a partner, and how to be successful working with your company.

Often, there are work examples that cannot be shared in a public forum such as a website; however, these same examples are often the most profoundly successful things an agency can speak on. While they cannot show up in the RFP, they can (with client approval, of course) in a sales discussion.

You cannot pass the chemistry test on paper.

In my prior post discussing how to evaluate your marketing agency, I talked about how your agency partner should be working on the relationship as much as the work. This means your agency knows more about you than what’s on your business card. They know if you have a family and what you’re interested in outside of work, and they know this because your interactions are not always business-centered. They understand that you’re a person first, and a career builder second.

Now, how awful does it sound to go through that with someone you genuinely do not enjoy being around? Pretty terrible, if you ask me. But you have no way of knowing if your chemistry with your agency point of contact is going to be good or bad (or worse) if you are making decisions based on an RFP process.

This gets back to the main point of taking the time to have conversations with your potential agencies. Limiting your use of the RFP doesn’t mean you don’t shop around—quite the opposite. It means you shop around more effectively. Your initial response may be, “yes, but I have to be able to see the deliverables and final cost before I can ever make a decision,” which I completely understand. At Element Three, for example, we scope the work for every project we undertake with a client. This, of course, includes the initial engagement. And guess what? There have been many times (two this month, actually) when the initial discussions made it sound like there was the budget to cover a lot of work, but our rough estimate was higher than where we actually came in for the initial stage of the relationship.

Going back to the prior point, if we hadn’t had the human-to-human discussions with these clients and rather had simply answered questions on a document, the presumptions made each way could have effectively killed a win-win relationship before it had a chance to start. There is a reason there is always a sales process, and why sticking to it is a good idea. That reason is good for both us as an agency and you as a buyer.

Of course, you may see the finalized, outlined work and still think it is off the mark. Believe it or not, that’s fine. You’ve now had a quality buying experience and have become a more sophisticated buyer. Take those skills to another agency and repeat. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat until you find the partner who aligns with your values, business goals, and budget.

You’re being sold everyone’s star-of-the-show and not seeing the hard work—and failures—happening behind the curtain.

To be 100% transparent, no successful engagement ever goes off without a few hitches. Everyone on both sides of the engagement, agency and client, is human. We all make mistakes. Therefore, to act like every step from the initial client kick-off to the end deliverable was full of happiness and bliss is somewhat ignorant.

It never goes that way.

What you don’t see in the beautifully rendered case study on the agency’s website is all of the bumps in the yellow brick road. At Element Three, we do the same thing. Of course our site has some of our best work showcased on the page. However, when you sit down with us, we are extremely transparent in what makes a good agency-client relationship happen, and what makes it not work. One of those key deliverables is the ability to be open and honest about expectations and what is possible to accomplish. Setting expectations simply doesn’t happen when you’re reviewing case studies online.

Imagine this. You want to build a new house. You go to a builder’s website, you take a look at their portfolio, and you fall in love with one particular model and style. The builder has done an amazing job showcasing this house, and now you’re sold. Great. You pick up the phone, and after going through their sales process, you start building. Budgets have been decided upon, and timelines are in place. What happens next?

Well, if you’re like anyone else I’ve asked who has built or renovated a home, the budget ends up getting doubled, and the timeline falls way behind. How are you feeling now? Not great, I would guess. Why does this happen? Clear expectations haven’t been set. No real discussion took place. You saw something on paper you BELIEVED was repeatable, and the builder gave you their cookie-cutter answer as to how long it would take and how much it would cost.

But just like house building, no two marketing projects are exactly the same. I cannot speak for every agency out there, but I know at Element Three everything we do is custom, and therefore nothing is ever done the same twice. And that means you can’t simply look at some case studies and choose one like food from a menu and expect it to be delivered exactly like it was the first time.

Your RFP Process May Be Up for a Makeover

I completely understand that for some companies, the RFP process is going to be a necessary step. This can be for a variety of reasons; perhaps yours is legal and this is how procurement works at your employer. However, just because a RFP must be sent out doesn’t mean you cannot engage in a more sophisticated buying process. Take the time to truly get to know your potential agency partners. Understand what they have excelled at in the past, and where they’ve struggled (and hopefully improved). Taking the extra time up front to make a good decision saves you time—and money—when you have to go back and clean up the mess.

Joe Mills Team Photo at Element Three

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” This advice has served Joe well as he’s worn many hats throughout his career–from college soccer player to marketing expert to Business Development Manager. He’s passionate about using big ideas to build mutually beneficial partnerships, because “to help yourself is to help others.”