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Hiring a Marketing Agency? Rethink Your RFP Process

In my time at Element Three, I have heard the words “why did they decide to do an 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. At Element Three, we infrequently experience a positive engagement from an RFP. It does happen, but it takes a very particular set of circumstances to create the environment in which an RFP can be an effective way to buy. It’s not that we won’t respond to RFPs—we just find the ability to facilitate an effective buying decision and the beginning of a fulfilling engagement is much higher 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 choosing a winner on the best idea, not the best thinking partner.

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 company’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 partner.

The most successful relationships we’ve been a part of have 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? What will your team need to be prepared to invest to get the most out of this outside firm from both a time and budget perspective? 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 partner 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 eventually caused the relationship to end? If not, 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. It also allows us to understand if we’re really set up to succeed in this engagement. Maintaining a lack of clarity about the current state of affairs allows for near-term opportunities but long-term pain for both parties.

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 organization can speak to. While they cannot show up in the RFP, they can (with client approval) in a sales discussion.

You cannot pass the chemistry test on paper.

In a prior post discussing how to evaluate your marketing agency, I talked about how your marketing partner should be working on the relationship as much as the work. This means the firm 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 without engaging in meaningful conversation.

This gets back to the main point of taking the time to meet with your potential partners. 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.”.

If I may push back on that for a moment; when you are shopping for an outside partner to simply execute based on your explicit direction, seeing the end deliverable may be wise. However, it’s more likely that you are shopping for both thinking and doing. Why spend your budget on an outside firm, only to then hold their hand every step of the way? Allow these professionals space to collaborate and elevate your ideas to their fullest potential.

You’re being sold everyone’s star-of-the-show and choosing a winner on the best idea, not the best relationship.

To be completely 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 not realistic.

It never goes that way.

What you don’t see in the beautifully rendered case study on the company’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 the most important components of a successful engagement is how well we can think together in real-time. What happens when we disagree? How do we find common ground on our ideas and function as a meritocracy where the best idea wins? This is a key component that is lost when we decide based on the best initial idea.

In a conversational buying process, as opposed to a strictly formed RFP, you have the opportunity to question the firm’s thinking, and for them to question yours. This creates necessary tension in the process. It gives you a little window into how the relationship may work on a day-to-day basis. There is no replacement for actually working together. However, if you realize in the buying process that the way they think is misaligned with how you work best, that is a really good indication to not hire that firm. Again, you need a conversation to determine this. It cannot be done through a paper submission.

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, or this is how procurement works at your employer. However, even within an RFP process, you can still engage in the necessary conversations covered throughout this post. Take the time to truly get to know your potential marketing 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.”