Why agencies should be mindful when entering into an RFP and should question brands harder

Performance Marketing

Much of the new opportunity process between brands and agencies is initiated through the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. Whilst this is the way things are, and have been done for quite some time, both brands and agencies would benefit from a change in how RFPs are formulated and how an RFP process is conducted.


Brand Rationale behind issuing an RFP to market


A brand may be issuing an RFP to market for several reasons. The most obvious reason, and the one agencies would most expect, is to receive proposals from a variety of potential partners to work together on a specific project or to achieve a digital objective. That said, there can sometimes be other reasons an RFP is released by a business. 


An RFP presents the opportunity for respective agencies to put forward their approaches to particular challenges that a business is experiencing. To research, prepare, and release a pitch worthy of a response takes many (skilled) man hours from different disciplines inside an agency team. This response and detail included is therefore of significant value, and some client-side stakeholders know this.


Commercial stakeholders know that if an RFP is released and 5 agencies pitch for the project, that’s 5 potential solutions that can be considered by a business and then intelligence has been gathered. 


Depending on the level of detail supplied or shared by agencies in their responses, a client may consider hiring one agency, or using the intelligence gathered to attempt the project themselves. If agencies share enough intel, a client will have the answers to the project; if they have the resources as well, they may be able to push forward without the need to invest in a partner after all. 


Brands win, agencies lose. 


The perceived Brand opportunity an RFP presents for Agencies


When an RFP is received, there is always excitement and desire within an agency environment. The agency has been critiqued based on public collateral, the brand has got in touch, they’ve supplied (or intend to) an RFP for the agency to review. Brilliant.


But this is where agencies all need to stop. 


The time needs to be spent to really question and consider the RFP, and the Brand submitting the RFP for a number of factors, all for one simple reason. 


The value of time within the agency.


Agency time is as valuable, if not MORE valuable than the brand’s time and that of those submitting it, particularly in this scenario. Agencies have the answers, brands, do not. 


Agencies need to question real hard to determine exactly what the brand is looking for, because their RFP may not necessarily detail it. 


RFPs are subjective, and can put agencies on the backfoot from the beginning if not careful


The challenge that agencies have (whether they realise it or not) is that RFPs are all formulated without any standardised format which actually considers the needs of an agency partner. Brands can pick and choose:


  • What goes into an RFP?
  • What does not go into an RFP?
  • Who they issue the RFP too?
  • What do they expect to receive as a part of the process?


Because brands have the control right from the beginning, it can lead to agencies becoming easily led and partaking in a process that is not designed correctly for an agency from the start. 


Agencies need a particular amount of detail in a number of areas to evaluate an opportunity for its suitability, and need to consider the agency’s proficiency to be able to partner for the opportunity on this occasion.


This is why agencies must question harder than the brand. 


Procurement departments will ask for your financials, breakdown of headcount, and want to understand your viability as a potential partner. RFPs that are not put to market through procurement departments do not necessarily detail their perfect agency profile fit, so you should really ask them what they feel is a perfect agency fit. 


An agency should also put forward and quality the Brand presenting the RFP for “client fit” too. Be bold, and own protect your agency’s value by critiquing the brand for their suitability to your business. Does this brand’s RFP process and approach fit in with your ethics and approach to servicing clients and partners? Do the key contacts operate in a way that fits your style of working and project management?


Protecting your time by asking these questions will help you to determine the viability of the process for your agency and aids the brand in receiving proposals from “best fit” partners too. By not asking, agencies put themselves at risk of spending valuable time in an opportunity that’s not right and giving away valuable intelligence that will not generate revenue for them.  


Does the brand have a genuine intent to buy or are they simply “fishing”?


Everybody in the industry knows, that when you put an RFP out, intelligence of some sort will come. It’s a sure-fire way of gathering some intel from skilled experts that will help you to determine your route forward. Agencies need to be mindful of this and bare this in mind when investing valuable time and effort into preparing responses to RFPs.  Question your own viability for the opportunity by asking:


  • The suitability of the brand to your agency
  • How many agencies are pitching in the process to work out your odds of success
  • Do you really have first-hand experience in the client’s sector / a close competitor
  • Do you have the right team genetics to service the account


Furthermore, you should question at the beginning of the RFP process the client’s intent, by asking:


  • How many agencies were contacted?
  • How many agencies will be shortlisted?
  • Why is this project not being handled internally / do you have resource internally skilled for this project?
  • What has been the solution for this project / digital need in the last 2 years – why the change now?
  • Who is the decision maker in the process?
  • Who will be involved in the presentation call, please provide a list of all attendees and their roles (if you find hands-on delivery people other than the marketing lead on the list, that’s a red flag – these decisions are usually commercial and led by stakeholders only at RFP stage)


Don’t be “star struck” and really question hard, because in this equation, your agency time is more valuable than the brand’s. Agencies have the answers in this equation; the brand does not. 


Agencies must balance the intelligence they share, for the benefit of their business model and for the future working relationship with the client


Asking an agency for support means that someone somewhere didn’t get it right yet. In fact, it could be that someone got things very wrong. Agencies have to balance identifying and pitching opportunity without putting “egg” on a clients face. This is something that agencies have to be careful about, because we have to work with these guys going forward, and so this adds another complexity to the RFP process and how much detail should be included. Agencies have to focus on the opportunity and solution, but sometimes the balancing act can be tricky when determining cause and responsibility.  


Commercial stakeholders must appreciate that to get the best from an agency it really must be a partnership, where both sides commit fully to the project.


All too many a time I’ve been on a call with a commercial lead that wants to bully straight through to the action list and numbers. Then when they are delivered, they work back and get involved in the detail. There is an air of distaste and usually a comment or two that “Agencies don’t deliver well in xyz in the past for us”. If this is the case, then agencies wouldn’t exist. In reality, the best agency results come when a client is fully committed into the relationship so much so that a true partnership is achieved.  


How Agency and Brand can truly unite through the process to become Partners. 


By following a process that from either side considers key informational factors above to be disclosed, then both agency and brand can have parity from the beginning and complete a process that protects their own individual business interests, but also allows for information exchange to entertain the mechanics of a possible partnership together. 


To have questions asked and answers shared both ways is the reality of what makes a great partnership happen, and this is what agencies need to remember and demonstrate when invited to pitch if they want to protect their most valuable commodity: time. 


About the Writer


Amo Sokhi is the Managing Director of POLARIS, an SEO agency in London. Amo’s experience stems from over 15 years in the digital world, consulting for both ecommerce and B2B enterprises globally on best practice SEO strategy and adoption.