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The Request For Proposal. Purchasing executives love ‘em. Client executives see them as a lot of work but a necessary evil. Government agencies usually require them. And many PR agencies simply hate them.
It’s no wonder.
Most agencies have been burned in the RFP process. They’ve spent thousands of dollars in outside expenses and tens of thousands of dollars of professional time to craft the perfect strategy and proposal … only to find out that they never really had a chance.
Sometimes, it was a case of a sham RFP process, conducted only to leverage the incumbent agency into lower pricing. Other times, it was a poorly structured and operated RFP process that involved all the wrong agencies.
Over the past 30 years, our agency has been extremely selectively about the RFPs we pursue.
And in talking with our fellow agencies in the PRSA Counselors Academy and the Public Relations Global Network, which comprises some 50 of the best PR firms from around the world, many of the best agencies avoid RFPs altogether.
The goal of an RFP should be to find the best possible PR agency partner for your PR program or project. It should involve a fair, transparent and effective process. But that’s often not the case.
I’ve said it a million times. But … there have been a few rare occasions where we have participated in these rigorous shootouts.
But only a few, out of perhaps hundreds received over the years.
If your company is considering using an RFP process, we thought it might be helpful for you to understand why an agency would not want to participate.
So, here are the top nine reasons we’ve found:
1. We’re not a good fit for your needs. We get RFPs all the time from municipal unions, new restaurants, community arts programs and even consumer product companies. The problem is, we are a B2B PR agency focused on automotive and mobility suppliers.
The fact that these kinds of organizations did not do enough research to determine what agencies might be a good fit suggest they are more interested in going through the motions and keeping their incumbent. Or worse yet, they actually have no idea what they are doing.
If they had done just a little research and visited our website, our home page spells out what kinds of clients we’re a good fit for. (To tell if your company is a potential fit for our agency, see these criteria at the bottom of the page.)
2. You won’t share pertinent information relating to your agency outreach. For us to make an informed decision, we need some sense of how many other agencies have received the RFP, who (or what kind of agency) they are, or what factors played a role in those agencies being invited.
If the number of invited firms is high (more than a handful), we see it as a cattle call that we’d have very slim odds of winning … or again, a situation of where the people conducting the search really have not clearly defined their needs and process.
3. You won’t give us access to the decision-makers in the process. If we are going to vie for being your partner, we need to get to know the people we would be working with if/when we win, what their goals and needs are, what their preferences are, and what it’s like to work with them.
This kind of subjective info won’t be found in the RFP, and the purchasing agent handling the process really can’t answer these questions, but they are crucial in helping us determine if your company, the process, the budget and the timing are a good fit for us.
We believe that every client deserves an agency that is the perfect fit.
We know we are not the best fit for every client. And we are happy to admit if we are not the right fit. By giving us access to the right people upfront, we can determine pretty quickly whether we’re the right fit or not, and save both of our organizations time and trouble.
4. The incumbent agency is invited to participate as a contender. Data shows that 60% or more of the time, when the incumbent agency is involved, they retain the business.
So, when you invite the incumbent to participate, we read that as one of two possibilities: 1) the RFP is just a bogus purchasing exercise to meet a requirement, or 2) purchasing is using the RFP process to squeeze their current partner for better pricing.
In either case, we don’t want to waste our time.
5. The incumbent agency is invited to participate but only as a courtesy. In this case, the client has no intention of rehiring the incumbent, but doesn’t want to be honest with the incumbent about the need for change.
Honestly, if that’s how you treat your partners, we’re probably not the right agency for you.
6. You won’t provide the specific figure for the approved budget for your program. Simply put, if you can’t provide us with a budget figure, experience tells us that you don’t actually have an approved budget.
So, we read this situation that either you are hoping that the budget fairy is going to smile upon you … or you’re hoping to use our proposal to try to convince your boss to approve a budget.
Hard pass. We’re not in the business of writing proposals for pipedreams.
7. You won’t share the details of your RFP process. If you won’t provide the criteria that you’ll be using to judge the candidate agencies, how you’ll weigh various factors, what your scoring matrix looks like, and what your process steps and timing will be, it signals to us that your process may be rigged or seriously flawed … and that the rules are likely to change during the process. Again, hard pass.
8. Your deadline is unrealistic. If you’ve given us too little time to put together a credible effort, we’re going to have to pass. A crazy deadline is a signal that you started the process to late. You should understand that most good agencies are BUSY. If they are well-run and profitable, they simply do not have a bunch of excess capacity sitting around idle.
So, if you expect a proposal within 5 or 10 days after issuing the RFP, you’re not giving the better agencies the time to do the necessary research, develop the strategies and tactics, and craft a worthwhile program.
Not only is this kind of expectation disrespectful, it’s also a red flag that perhaps everything is a crisis and last-minute with you. Who wants that kind of stress from the get-go?
9. We’re too busy. In this case, it’s not you, it’s us.
As mentioned earlier, most of the really good agencies are busy with their current clients and don’t have a lot of extra capacity lying around, waiting for the next RFP to come in … unless they just ended an engagement or left your competitor due to bad treatment.
Ok, we’ll admit that not all RFPs are evil. And we’ll admit that RFPs can work, if they’re done correctly.
So, if you have to use an RFP process to find your best-fit PR agency partner, take the time and do it right. Hire a professional agency search consultant, like The Mercer Island Group, who can help you run a transparent, fair and, most importantly, effective RFP process.
After all, even though your procurement folks want you to look at your PR agency as a vendor, for a successful program, you really need more than just a vendor. You need a partner. And that partnership derives from trust.
Your relationship with your PR firm is an important relationship. And if you choose wisely, that relationship will last a long time (as many of ours have – including one that’s going on 30 years!) and will pay dividends to you for years, maybe even decades.
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