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Agency Search: 6 Hints for an Effective Advertising RFP

“Agency search is a lot like dating.”

–Authoritative people with opinions

The current agency/client relationship lasts on average less than three years. In 1997 it was around five. In 1984, it was a little more than seven.

If choosing an advertising agency is like dating, then that growing divorce rate shows that we all—agencies and clients alike—are getting worse and worse at the mating game.

I’m a little sick of the analogy but there’s no denying it fits. Yes, you need an emotional connection and chemistry, but agency search is a serious business decision. You can’t just swipe right and find your perfect partner. That means you need a process.

For most companies, that process begins with a request for proposals (RFP).

Don’t get me wrong, I’d actually like to see RFPs go completely out the window (I’m not alone, see Avi Dan’s great Forbes article on Why the RFP is a Waste of Time). You get a much better feel for that elusive connection and chemistry—and workflows, and creativity, and process and depth-of-knowledge—if you do some homework and then assign your favorite agencies a small test project.

But most companies still use RFPs when they start their agency searches.

If you’re in the agency search game, the Association of National Advertisers and 4A’s put together a comprehensive white paper on agency selection that has all the information you might want from research phase to final selection. It has extensive advice on providing background information on your company and 18 agency questions you should consider including in your RFP.

What follows isn’t in that document, but can help save you time, money and frustration.

Part one: The nuts and bolts

1. Try not to use the procurement purchasing template as is

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten a crazy format designed to get the lowest bid, and nothing else, on the maintenance department’s toilet paper contract. I was shocked when one multinational company that should know better gave us an old, clumsy Excel file that we had to fill out; it was the ugliest, most unwieldy – and useless – format ever.

We design our responses and presentations to give you a feel for our creativity and style. If we have to cut and paste answers into an Excel file you’re going to miss out on one of the key reasons you should hire an agency.

2. Embrace tech

Do not ask for multiple printed copies delivered to your headquarters. In the RFP biz, print really is dead.

You can’t print video or web links. Many agencies are moving toward sizzle reels and case videos and you won’t want to miss out on those. Even if one person in your office demands a printout, they’re still going to have to use a screen of some sort to see that killer commercial.

Even better, don’t assign a format at all. Let us use the latest tech and our creativity to your advantage.

Unless you’re exclusively selling buggy whips and mustache wax to off-the-grid historical reenactors you’re going to want to see that an agency can use current technologies. We’ve got all sorts of fun and efficient ways to deliver information to you—and to your customers.

One option is to let us submit via a secure FTP instead of breaking up the required PDF into bits because your (or our) server won’t let us send a large file. Trust me, with all the nifty stuff agencies now offer, it’s going to be a large file.

3. More is not better – for either of us

We’ve gotten some long RFPs. I mean really long. Ten pages is not unusual. I think the record for us is 35. Our longest response was around 60 pages. At these lengths, the RFP goes from useful to cumbersome.

A simple way to trim the RFP is to do away with needless questions.

Cut out generic procurement questions like, “Do you have someone available at all times to attend to emergency machinery maintenance?” Um, no. We’re an advertising agency, not plumbers. We also have no written policies on OSHA compliance.

Weed out repetition. For instance, we know you’ll want to ask about the background of key staff. There’s no need to ask about key staff in the “about your agency” and “agency history” sections (why is that two sections anyway?), and then require an org chart with staff qualifications.

Don’t add too many “subset” questions. Here’s why: Pretend you’ve got only five questions, but if each has 5-10 subsets that require a paragraph or page, you’ve got at least 25 questions that we have to answer and you have to read. Note that while the ANA 4A’s briefing has 18 points, many like “number of employees” can be included in an agency overview or as a simple number—if you choose to ask that kind of thing at all.

We’re guilty, too. Agencies can be a verbose crowd. Give us word or page limits. Restrict the number of cases we show you. Just be sure you give us enough room to actually answer the questions. (Though an RFP response in five tweets might be an interesting challenge.)

Part Two: Give us something to react to

Any agency with at least one seasoned staff member will know the standard RFP ask. We’ve got several versions of histories, staff bios, case studies, statistics and references at the ready. You could just say “give us the standard” and we would deliver something decent.

But you wouldn’t get the best response possible.

Our responses are going to be tailored to your needs.  Without that, we may end up totally off the mark, and you’ll never know that with a little more information we would have been your best choice. Worse, some agencies may not continue with your search process because you seem unprepared and potentially difficult to work with.

For instance…

4. What do you really want?

What’s the real goal? You may think you need a TV spot when our previous experience and research indicates your anticipated results will be better achieved through a social influencer program.

Asking what our approach is to social media marketing gets you one answer. Telling us that you want to improve the frequency of repeat online customers might get you another.

Granted, that can change once we’re hired and see your business in full, but you’ll have a better idea of our depth of knowledge of your business and/or target, plus an indication of how well we think about solutions before execution.

5. Tell us your budget

At least give us an idea of what you can spend.

Most agencies have internal guidelines about how large or small a budget they can work with. A budget will also indicate if you can realistically fund your anticipated scope of work. Let us self-select out of the process from the beginning if we need to.

The last thing either of us wants is to go through all the time and effort of your selection process only to have you say you want to hire us and we can’t do it because it’s not fiscally possible.

We know that we’re in competition with other agencies that also do good work and price accordingly. It helps no one to be shady with the budget.

6. Give us some time

We know it took a lot of time to get the big bosses to OK the budget and campaign and your timeline is tight. But one or two weeks to respond isn’t enough. Question-and-answer periods don’t count. We use that time to come up with questions that give us insight into your business and the issues you want to solve, not to start a response we may have to completely change after the answers come back.

Yes, we have some canned stuff. Yes, some of the giant agencies have whole teams who work on nothing but new business. But most of us tailor and design our responses specifically for your brand and that takes time. We also have client work that can’t be neglected.

Give us the opportunity to do a thorough, unrushed job. You’ll have a much better idea of what we can do for you.

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Advertising, Management

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