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.
Our Silicon Valley client’s brief was clear. The fast-growing firm with an impressive roster of well-known clients worldwide wanted and needed the services of a global public relations firm with demonstrated experience managing multi-market, multi-national accounts -- one that could show itself to be a good steward of a respectable budget for a thought leadership and branding program in key markets in North America, Europe and Asia.
On paper, the candidate agencies we identified and helped our client evaluate were well-qualified. Each had company-owned and/or affiliate offices in all the requisite markets, and were armed with case studies that trumpeted impressive experience in at least some of those. But as the RFP process moved from proposals, to presentations and client reference interviews, deficiencies and flaws among the agencies surfaced. Chief among them: (1) weak examples of managing truly global, multi-market accounts; and (2) an inability, or unwillingness (or both) to be creative with a budget which in this case was set in the high six figures.
Multi-market account coordination and budget management.
Ask anyone in PR their thoughts on RFPs and they’re likely to recoil, their face turning ashen. Why would any firm want to respond to a cattle call pitting competitors against each other, when most of those competitors believe that the fix is in, the expectations are unrealistic, and the odds of winning don’t outweigh the chances of losing. And for clients, the RFP is like the proverbial hot potato: nobody wants to manage it, and everyone wants to toss it to a colleague.
I am a shameless advocate for RFPs. Not just because RFPs are the foundation of my business. But because no one – on the agency or client side – has yet to develop a process better able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
All that said, the RFP process works to the extent that the process is open, fair and balanced. Our premise has always been that the PR industry will be elevated if the agency selection process is a more structured, improved process. This is all predicated, though, on a level playing field and an earnest attempt by both sides to participate in an intelligent information and idea exchange with a serious and well-refereed interplay to yield not just a winner but a long-term relationship. This, in fact, is what we guarantee to our clients – leading, I’m happy to say, to satisfying results -- even for those agencies not selected.
First, let’s recognize that the PR Council reports that 1/3 of all new agency business comes from RFPs. That’s substantial enough to take the process seriously no matter the size of your firm. The critical point, and where we take a very strong stand, is that there must be a standardized “bill of rights” for agencies and clients alike. Gone should be the sparse, two-page RFPs that prompt more questions than they answer, and that ask for the world in 10 days’ time. No RFP should hit the street that does not include a core scope of work and a budget; there’s simply no way to rationalize that agencies should propose a cost. And, all agencies – including any incumbents – should be on an equal ground at the start, with each having an equal shot at winning the client’s business. Bottom line: if an RFP does not follow these basic rules, agencies should reject it en masse.
As we step into a new year, let’s build on the tenet that an agency search should be treated like hiring a new staff of senior- and mid-level employees. Think about it: bringing on a new agency with a budget of $250K, $500K or $1 million or more is like hiring a new public relations staff. Ask yourself: How long does that usually take? No staffer ever comes on board without presenting credentials, going through several rounds of interviews meeting existing staff, and being vetted through references, writing tests, and credit bureaus. It’s a process that typically takes you and HR three to six months -- yet most clients try to hire a new PR agency in four to six weeks. It’s irrational, considering you are hiring a firm to be the caretaker of your corporate reputation, and to serve as your organization’s external face.
RFPs are pro forma in most industries. In public relations, we need to operate a bit differently. We should define the situation, provide context and background, and then outline what’s required. The devil is always in the details, and we at RFP Associates subscribe to more is best. The goal of each request should be to provide as much information as possible to allow an agency to offer their perspective, qualifications, and proposed plan of action to achieve your stated goals. Which means, in turn, that your RFP should be your blueprint for mutual success.
Every agency search deserves a defined timeline that is clear to both sides. Cattle calling numerous agencies to respond does no party any good, and disrespects our industry. We advocate first pre-screening RFP recipient candidates through a request for qualifications (RFQ) as a means to uncover conflicts, true expertise, staffing, and (sometimes) locations. Choosing five to seven RFP recipient-contenders for your business is reasonable. And ending up with three or four finalists narrows the choice to a manageable level.
Each successful, well-run agency search is a badge for the profession. The good work of our industry is evident in the Silver Anvils, Thoths (here in DC), Gold Quills, SABRE Awards, and more. And I would be willing to bet good money that many, if not most of those award-winning agencies were hired following a well-written and -organized RFP process.
- Robert Udowitz
A version of this blog appeared on the O'Dwyers PR website
Agencies have a love-hate relationship with requests for proposals (RFPs). Okay, it’s mostly hate. However, from our perspective, it’s not the RFP per se, but typically the process that lead them to abhor and recoil from what should be a clean, simple and honest method of evaluating one firm over another.
When done correctly, an RFP can effectively detail an organization’s PR needs and requirements. It provides a solid foundation for an agency search that will help brands and organizations to hire and retain an agency that constitutes the right fit.
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?
PR agencies should and can improve their RFP response “batting average” by asking questions and pushing for complete information up front, avoiding the cookie cutter approach, looking inward before responding outward, and being prepared to put their best foot forward during the proposal and presentation process.
Those were the recommendations we shared with more than 50 firms when RFP Associates presented to mid-sized PR agency heads and senior executives last month during the PRSA Counselors Academy conference in California.
It was part of our launch and introduction of our newest offering, “RFP Response Ready,” a customized suite of services for PR agencies eager to improve their new business acumen and approach to the RFP response process.
When someone asks what the most critical component is when hiring a public relations firm I often respond: “time.”
Time is easily the most under-appreciated element required for working with a PR agency. It begins with the time that should be devoted to identify and hire the most qualified agency, and then it continues through to the weekly time needed to provide the materials required for them to do their job (i.e. get you results).
RFP Associates was honored and delighted to have been selected to present to the recently-concluded PRSA Counselor's Academy spring conference in Dana Point, CA. Our topic: “Mastering RFP Evaluation and Response to Win More Business.” Boy, did we hit a nerve!
The more than 60 professionals who attended our session represent and lead small- to mid-sized public relations firms: all hungry, all entrepreneurial, and all eager to figure out the conundrum, the puzzle and the frustration which is the dreaded RFP!
Time was, searching for a PR firm meant jotting down a few requirements and shooting it to a few former colleagues or friends of friends at two or three familiar agencies.
Sorry. Like everything else in life, finding the firm that will best serve your needs is no longer that easy. And it shouldn't be. In today's bottom line focused ROI environment can you really invest six figures into an agency that may or may not be able
Defining your scope of work is critical when selecting any PR firm. Not only will it make your goals and objectives clear, but it will also help you determine if you are looking purely for public relations services or, perhaps, if you need marketing or digital services instead. Though the lines are blurring today on what PR and marketing firms offer, as a general rule it’s important to understand where you need the help: earned media/media relations (PR), writing (PR), sales materials (marketing), ad copy (marketing), website (PR & marketing), social media (PR), conferences/events (marketing), or email outreach (marketing), to name just a few.
It bothers us every time we read or hear about a start-up or small business complaining that it wasn’t happy with its PR firm. Sure, there are two sides to every story, but we’re willing to wager that the primary cause for agency dissatisfaction among small businesses is – more often than not - poor planning and consideration before hiring the firm. This is not to point a finger at hiring companies. More often than not, they are justifiably too enmeshed in their own day-to-day details to understand the many nuances of public relations to properly study, hire and get value from a firm. But where does that leave them, and how can they overcome that hump?
The PR agency selection process is a mystery that needs unraveling. With fierce competition among agencies and consultants of all stripes and colors, how can one firm distinguish itself from the others? Can a smaller boutique beat out a larger firm in
Recently I outlined the top five concerns we hear about time and again from our business and association clients regarding the RFP and agency selection process.
Now, as many clients look to hire or switch agencies to have a resource in place by early 2013, it’s time to hear from the agencies. What are their chief complaints and concerns?
A couple of months ago the Washington Business Journal contacted us asking advice for their upcoming “10 Things to ask before…Choosing a PR firm” column. This regular feature on various topics includes recommendations from a series of anonymous experts (can’t imagine why) in the industry.
With its publication this week the Washington Business Journal offers some good categories (e.g., qualifications, references, chemistry, measuring), but we’re astounded by the column’s utter simplicity and matter-of-factness. The column suggests that a business can hire a PR agency as easily as one might shop for window blinds!
While May/June is usually when most of us focus on our spring cleaning at home, September/October seems to be the time when companies start focusing on “cleaning house” with regard to their PR programs -- with the hope of hiring a new firm to start working in January.
Question: What’s the most frequent disappointment about agencies, according to a growing number of client organizations?
Answer: That they are not providing enough new ideas or thinking outside of the proverbial box.
Thank you for having a look at our inaugural blog post!
Why “Cart Before the Horse?” Because we founded RFP Associates on the premise that the process of identifying, evaluating and hiring a PR agency, social media or branding consultancy or marketing communications firm is one requiring preparation, commitment and the focus of both parties.
Too often a hiring organization puts too little time and effort into a decision that represents an investment of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. And too often an agency under consideration will dismiss the RFP process as nothing more than a rigged “beauty contest,” one that requires a lot of “jumping through hoops” with little hope of a positive outcome. Too often, in other words, the hiring organization and the agency both put the cart before the horse.
In this space, we will share with you our observations, our thoughts and our recommendations on how all parties involved in the hiring of a PR/PA agency or other professional services company can make certain their horses are in front of them, headed in the right direction, and intent on arriving at their destinations in as efficient manner as possible. We'll also offer our observations on topical industry concerns and issues that relate to the betterment of the profession.
RFP Associates is committed to being right there up front with you. Along the way, we look forward to your input, perspective and feedback.
Meantime, let’s enjoy the journey together.
Top Concerns of Agencies Responding to RFPs
Why Organizations Dread the RFP Process
Have others? Email us.
RFP Associates subscribes to and expects all the agencies we work with to adhere to the professional ethics codes outlined by at least one of the following: Public Relations Society of America, the PR Council and the Arthur Page Society.