Don't Let Your RFP Process Become a Circus

While we all enjoy the Big Top, when it comes to new business no agency wants to be just another clown, trained animal, fire breather, or tightrope walker under the tent. However, some of today’s agency searches have become circuses to the point of absurdity.


One of the PR trades recently reported on a search where 16 firms were asked to respond to an RFP. Imagine juggling that responsibility with your normal responsibilities.


What starts out as an effort to get the best agencies for a project can quickly spin out of control to become the proverbial three-ring circus. This is not only bad for clients and agencies, but also the reputation of the industry and the RFP process.  


It doesn’t have to be this way. Clients should manage agency search as a military (not a beauty) parade: Only those thoroughly vetted and qualified should participate based on their expertise.


As former clients and PR agency executives who have participated in RFPs, we’ve developed an efficient, disciplined, streamlined path for all parties designed to stop RFPs from resembling Ringling Brothers - or even Cirque du Soleil. We believe this should be the industry standard. 


What’s required is casting a net wide enough to identify just the qualified candidates based on industry and communications expertise, location and size, and the criteria required for the assignment. With 6,000 agency and professional profiles on the CommunicationsMatch platform (our online partner) the vetting process should not be that daunting.


After shortlisting candidates its worth the time to issue a focused request for qualifications (RFQ) questionnaire. This provides an efficient way to engage around 10 agencies, with all the information they need to determine if the assignment and budget are a good fit and they are not conflicted.  


After this step there should not be more than eight agencies eligible to receive your Request for Proposal - RFP.


While keeping searches out of the spotlight is generally a positive, it is essential that the RFP process be transparent and fair for participating agencies. By providing a clear scope of work for the project, budget, measures of success, and the opportunity for agencies to share their thinking and relevant case studies, a well-structured RFP is critical for all parties. Leveraging the Agency Select™ tools we have developed online with CommunicationsMatch to create customized proposals ensures candidates compete on a level playing field and clients can review responses side-by-side.


The benefits are more than just time. As our research into agency search underscores, the more disciplined a search process the better the results and the stronger and more long-lasting the client/agency relationship. 


Having managed numerous agency searches over the last decade, we know the process works. That’s why it’s built into our RFP tools. Clients and the agencies they hired have succeeded, not by being circus ringleaders but through a carefully managed, disciplined search, selection and hiring process that delivers long-term results.


This blog post, co-authored by Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz of RFP Associates

and Simon Locke of CommunicationsMatch, originally appeared in CommPRO


DC Flack Pack Podcast

RFP Dance Moves (Tips)

We were featured on DC's premier podcast for the PR Industry, Flack Pack, hosted by Robert Johnson of the Washington Media Group.

This in-depth interview truly explains how we began our business and the process we use to help clients find agencies.

See episode recording below

(we begin at about 17:00)


How can PR pros engage the RFP process and live to tell about it? Robert spends some quality time this week with two experts on RFPs: Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake.


Responding to a PR request for proposals (RFP) can be stressful, time consuming, and sometimes futile. But it’s also necessary, as RFPs are a staple of agency business development efforts.

So how can PR pros engage the RFP process and live to tell about it? Robert spends some quality time this week with two experts on RFPs: Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake, principals of RFP Associates, based here in the Washington, D.C. metro area. They examine the pitfalls of the process and share some tips that will help us master our next RFP response.

- Steve Drake & Robert Udowitz

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Agency Hiring Lessons from Happy Meals to Package Delivery

When offering advice to agencies about how they can win more business, we often cite the lesson that no detail is too small. An example that summarizes the point best is the many-times-retold tale of a McDonald’s PR pitch where one agency was eliminated before it even began its final presentation because no one on the team could quote the price of a Happy Meal.


The other involves a proposal for a piece of the UPS business which would have resulted in a lucrative win for a major agency.


After all the research, creative ideas, strategy, and budgeting were prepared, the task of shipping it to the prospective client fell on a team member who made the fatal error of shipping the proposal via UPS’s chief rival FedEx! 


Not surprisingly, the UPS communications chief did not even bother opening the package.  And not only did the agency not get the UPS business, but the cascading effect damaged a pre-existing agency-client relationship, long-term job security for a number of staffers, and, of course, the firm’s reputation.


In the category of its-a-small-world, I recently was introduced to a communications executive who was a bit player at the agency responsible for the UPS debacle. The person relayed to me the full back-story of how the mistake came to be and how it rocked the firm to its very core more than anyone ever knew.


The lessons to agencies are compelling and simple:  no element of the client interaction can be overlooked and every individual in the chain needs to understand the importance of the client work, whether it’s a proposal or an ongoing assignment.


Clients hiring agencies must also recognize that the agency search process should involve considering intangibles which may be just as important as the specific elements of the scope of work laid out in the RFP. It shouldn’t be a game of “gotcha” but peppering in questions to get a sense of whether the agency did its homework in preparing for the proposal and presentation should distinguish the winner from the finalists.


Using the first example, regardless of any strategic or creative brilliance appearing in proposals for McDonald’s RFP, agencies whose response includes team members’ personal experience with the chain should be moved to the top of the pile.


We always point out that hiring an agency is like hiring a team of new staff members. Therefore, the detail and time devoted to the process should match the seriousness with which your human resources department would accord the recruitment of, say, six public relations staffers, all at once. And, scrupulously overseeing how each firm handles the response can be as important as the response itself. After all, the hired firm is likely responsible for the external reputation of your organization.


Btw, someday I’ll also share the tale of the agency that marched into a different McDonald’s presentation with Starbucks cups in-hand. Spoiler alert:  perhaps the McCafé mural in the board room should have given them pause.

5 RFP Must-Do’s When Hiring Your Next PR Agency

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,

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Beware of Agencies Pushing Back on "Elaborate" RFPs

So, we recently experienced a first – and not a positive one, from our perspective.  A very respected agency pulled out from one of our searches because the RFP was "too elaborate.”  We asked, but were not able to determine:  Did that mean it was too thorough?  Too detailed?  Or did it require too much effort to respond?


It's true that most RFPs issued for PR services are recipes for disaster, and ask too much from competing agencies. But if an RFP is structured well, and is part of a transparent and unbiased process, then is it really too "elaborate" for the document to include comprehensive and detailed information so an agency may respond, smartly and comprehensively? 

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