To listen to executives of both PR agencies and client organizations tell it, the request-for-proposal (RFP) process is hopelessly dysfunctional, and frequently dead on arrival.
Agencies point to an array of worries and concerns about RFPs. Among them: a complex and redundant process featuring tight deadlines, outsized expectations, a vague scope of work and an incomplete or completely missing budget. Many believe “the fix is in,” that the client organization knows precisely which agency it intends to hire and issues an RFP simply to satisfy a mandate by top management or the procurement department.
Meantime, hiring organizations cite their own concerns over what can be a daunting, time-consuming process, beginning with the dizzying array of large, boutique and specialty agencies in the market today—making “shopping” for the best one that much more challenging. They also cite the need to bring in their procurement departments and concerns over agencies that over-promise and under-deliver.
For all of the suspicion, criticism and speculation, however, a fair and well-managed RFP process remains the most effective way for client organizations to compare the capability, creativity and readiness of PR agencies competing for their work. “Influence 100,” a recent Holmes Report survey of top corporate communications executives from around the world, found that 35% of communications executives use a “traditional RFP process” when hiring an agency (up from 20% in 2015). That statistic is consistent with PR Council member surveys, which show that about 30% of new business generated by PR agencies of all sizes and stripes is attributed to their participation in RFP-driven competitions.
Clients that truly want to identify and hire the very best PR agency, whether for a short-term project or an ongoing contract, should undertake the same level of due diligence, review and evaluation as their human resources departments would put into the hiring of a new staff of public relations professionals—because that’s essentially what the new agency will bring to the organization.
Indeed, hiring entities should attend to these five must-dos:
1. Go all in with your RFP. If you want to draw the most strategic and creative thinking from the agencies competing for your business, your RFP should be as comprehensive as possible. Background on your organization and its communications needs should be much more than a few paragraphs cut and pasted from your website; it should include information and insights on why you are seeking to hire an agency, on your competitive position and challenges, and even some of the skeletons in your closet. At the same time, the centerpiece of the RFP—the scope of work—should be detailed enough to answer the question, “What do these guys want us to do?” yet leave plenty of room for the creative and unique approaches you’ll want to see from the agency candidates.
2. Include budget parameters. Omitting a planned budget in an RFP is like telling a contractor to build you a home without providing any parameters, yet that is what many client organizations choose to do. Without guidance and direction, no agency can intelligently propose and price the work you require. Clients that insist on being vague on budget—usually motivated to see how creative an agency will be—ultimately do themselves a disservice by making it difficult to compare competing agencies on an apples-to-apples basis.
3. Keep the candidate agency list short, and get a signed NDA before distributing the RFP. If you do as I suggest and provide material and non-public details about your organization in the RFP, you should first distribute a non-disclosure agreement to all candidate agencies. The NDA should also ask agencies to certify they have no client or financial conflicts.
4. Build and manage a dedicated evaluation team. An agency typically works with and supports departments and functions beyond corporate communications or public affairs. At the onset of the search we recommend recruiting an agency evaluation team of six to ten individuals representing your department and your internal “clients,” to emphasize their stake and responsibility in making a decision that is best for the entire organization.
5. Maintain a level playing field throughout the RFP process. Transparency is not only critical in the agency search process, it sets the tone for the (hopefully) long-term relationship with the selected agency. If you truly want to determine the very best agency competing for your business, ensure that no one agency receives a competitive advantage along the way. That means providing all agencies with the same information at once, holding a single bidders call for questions and even telling them who they are competing against.
The bottom line for clients: the RFP process can work smoothly, for clients and agencies alike. But it works best when clients are open about (yet careful with) information on their organizations, when the evaluation team represents all of the departments to be served by the agency and when there’s a level playing field throughout. It also means that the agency that wins your business will have truly earned it.
Steve Drake is a principal with RFP Associates, an agency search firm supporting organizations seeking public relations/public affairs and digital communications services.