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Why RFPs suck for brands hiring agencies


Alison Demelis

Alison Demelis, Director, Marketing & Communications, MediaCom Canada


RFPs in the marketing industry have become a barrier to finding an agency that’s truly the right fit for your company. It’s like going on a date, asking all the questions you think you are supposed to ask but not really finding out if that person is compatible because you didn’t ask the right questions. You can spend a lot of time “dating” the wrong person when the perfect partner is out there for you.

Okay, maybe not perfect, but certainly a much better match.

It’s important that you ask agencies the right questions for two reasons:

  1. To discover if the agency is the right fit to be a partner to your business.
  2. To establish how exactly the agency is the right fit.

Often the first discrepancy we see in an RFP is that procurement and marketing are not aligned before it’s issued. If you are going to award the business based on commercial terms you need to be transparent at the beginning. This will save you a lot of time and money. Frustrations arise when marketing’s goal is not the same as procurement’s when looking for an agency.

The RFP process doesn’t resolve this issue. It consumes hours of time and large resources for both client and the agency, and too often asks the wrong questions. For instance, “What accounts have you won? What accounts have you lost?” Other than satisfying curiosity, it’s hard to figure out what the answers to these questions will tell a client about an agency, what the agency can bring to the business, and why the agency thinks it would make a good partner.

And agencies also consistently run up against the Catch 22 situation of “we want you to have experience in our sector but, if you have a client that is in our sector, we don’t want you to be our agency.” Conflict is no reason to reject an agency. After all, consultants work with many conflicting clients and it doesn’t seem to pose a problem for those clients. Agencies take painful measures to ensure all client information – proprietary or otherwise – is kept in the strictest confidence.

This issue is usually resolved by transparent discussions between clients and agencies, to ensure everyone is comfortable with the structure.

To follow on from these initial points about client frustrations with the RFP process, here’s a more comprehensive list of….


Things that SUCK in an RFP:

Time: RFPs require an exorbitant amount of time and resources. When agencies have less than two weeks to put together research, strategy, plans, and designs, you won’t get the best results and ideas from them. Four weeks should be a minimum timeframe for an agency to respond to your approach.

NOT disclosing spend: The more information you can provide the better. Some agencies, and people within agencies, are experts at smaller budget clients and others at larger. Sharing details on your spend will allow an agency to actually put together a team that works best for you.

Requiring “spec” work: Asking agencies to provide “spec” creative work should never be part of the pitch process because the rewards for the client are usually disappointing, and the practise is likely to contribute to an adversarial relationship with an agency rather than one that’s more collaborative.

Lack of clarity on the fee structure: There is no single fee structure anymore. The standard list includes commission-based, retainer fee, project fee and fixed fee…but fee structures are limited only by one’s imagination and can include PBR, equity, and licensing arrangements, to name just a few. A good agency should be willing to work with you to figure out the fee scenario that works best for each situation. This should ideally be a partnership discussion, not limited to an RFP question.

Not sharing the challenges faced: If you want to find the best agency partner, you need to share your challenges with agencies. Let them know what you need help with. Their response should tell you if they’re the right fit for you.

Terms & Conditions: In the case of contracts and terms that must be accepted with no opportunity to redline and negotiate, then be up front and don’t wait until after the submission to share this information. Agencies can’t always agree to terms as they are presented in an RFP, as they may present legal or confidentially issues with existing clients. Again, clear and open discussion is the best way forward here.

And there are also some straightforward questions clients can ask agencies to smooth the selection process.


Things To Ask Agencies

Why do you want to work on our business?

If an agency wants to work on your business, then they should be proud to say it and be able to say exactly why.


What do you know about our business?

You want to work with an agency that knows your business. Even if they don’t have experience in your sector from past clients, they should do the extensive research about your business (and category) to understand it before they enter the selection process.


What is your agency most proud of?

You can tell a lot about an agency by hearing where they feel their greatest accomplishments are. These achievements should fundamentally line up with your business’s value system.


How will you transition the business? What will the first 90 days look like?

RFPs get very specific about many details, but often forget to discuss how the business will transition. You want an agency that has processes in place and a clear vision as to how they can deliver as smoothly as possible.


What makes a great client?

It’s good to ask an agency how they would describe a great client and compare this to your vision. If you don’t feel that this fits, you need to ask if you think you could work in the way that they think is so amazing.


What do you need from us to make this partnership work?

If you’re serious about building a strong partnership with an agency, ask what they expect from you. Not setting these expectations, even at the selection stage, leads to potential issues later.

Agency searches are an essential part of many brands’ business, but the marketing industry has evolved, and so too should the way in which you select agencies. Be more strategic about what you’re asking so that you can find the perfect partner. That way, you’ll be sure that the selection process no longer sucks.

The Institute of Communication Agencies’ Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

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