Choosing a new PR agency is hard. Will an agency understand your business or a technology? Can they achieve business and marketing objectives? Will their creativity bring your stories to life?
A Request for Proposal (RFP) is often the first stage of the PR agency selection process and attempts to answer those questions in a simple and unified way, creating a level playing field for everyone involved. RFP due diligence ensures that a company is selecting the right agency for its needs, and it means that the expectations for an agency are clear from the onset.
While those of us who work on the agency side have decidedly mixed feelings about RFPs and some agencies even decline to respond to RFPs altogether, it can be a very useful tool when developed and managed properly.
It’s not always a smooth process, but these five simple steps can make it a success.
1. Build in enough time
A short timetable reduces the chances that agencies will respond. An agency may interpret an accelerated timeline in multiple ways. It may be a sign that a company has already chosen an agency and is being forced to go through the process because it’s a requirement. Or, it could be interpreted as organizational disarray. It’s a tall task for an agency to respond to an RFP within a very short timeframe when many other priorities compete for bandwidth, from client work to internal tasks and other new business projects.
Overall, in higher-quality submissions. It enables an evaluation team to gather stakeholders from across functions to clarify their needs, explore everyone’s must-haves and wants, and thoughtfully prepare for the process. And with more time, every participating agency can think deeply about the questions, brainstorm internally and develop creative concepts to wow the evaluation team.
2. Limit searching before the RFP
RFPs narrow down an agency search to only the best candidates. Because of that, there is often a temptation to send it out widely. When more agencies are involved, the chances of success are higher, right?
The reality is that it’s a double-edged sword. While more RFP responses in theory provide a greater diversity of thinking, wading through many similar submissions is time-consuming and can be a waste of time for everyone. To limit your search, ask for recommendations within your network, seek out agencies that have won awards for their work, and look for ones that represent relevant businesses that you respect. After going through the due diligence process, you should develop a list of at most four agencies to involve.
Have that short list sign NDAs and ask them to certify that they have no client conflicts. Client conflicts may whittle down the list further or present an opportunity to involve another agency in the mix, so be prepared to adjust accordingly.
3. Provide a budget
When agencies aren’t given at least a ballpark budget, it’s difficult to accurately determine what’s feasible within the scope of the program and how each program component should be scaled. Providing a budget reduces variability in the responses and encourages accurate comparisons.
While there’s a temptation to be purposefully vague about budget to explore the range of services and creativity of agencies, it is ultimately a disservice to an RFP process. For example, an agency may detail all the potential services it could offer and price the program accordingly, with a budget far higher than expected. Or it could go the other way and provide a scope of work that fits in the expected elements at the bare minimum budget, which would ultimately sacrifice results.
However, each of those agencies could have all the capabilities a company needs and be the perfect fit. You just wouldn’t know it, if their proposals are off base due to not having budget information.
4. Make expectations clear
Stating your expectations starts with providing comprehensive information on your business and the reasons you’re seeking an agency. Give background on your organization, your competitive position, key products or services, communications history and challenges.
The scope of work should be similarly detailed. List every service that you require and identify the objectives, needs, expected deliverables and success factors for each one. Center the RFP questions around those expectations and the experience an agency has in relation to them.
Strong RFPs often will go beyond the typical questions by providing an example of a challenge and asking an agency how they would solve it. This offers agencies a chance to show their creativity and relevant experience and enables them to demonstrate how they can solve a challenge within the constraints provided.
5. Be transparent
Agencies must be cautious with their time when responding to an RFP. Transparency should start with being open about the selection criteria, ranging from an agency’s capabilities to its location, experience, size and more, to determine if it is qualified. Additionally, be open about the number of participating agencies, including the types of agencies involved. PR has evolved into integrated communications, and with complete transparency, an agency can more easily determine whether there is a potential fit or not.
Consider hosting calls that all participating agencies can join to ask questions, and encourage the agencies to engage with you. Agencies ask clarifying questions to refine their responses to ensure that proposals meet an organization’s needs. The interactions you have with each agency will indicate chemistry, which becomes more important the closer you get to selecting an agency.
Once the selection happens, notify the finalists and provide feedback on what led to the decision. The feedback an agency receives is valuable and can shape future proposals.
An RFP process might be daunting, but by going through it properly, you can be confident in your selection and cultivate long-lasting relationships along the way.