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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


The Devil is in the Details When Issuing RFPs

Identifying and hiring a new agency is often more of a commitment of time and resources than typically considered. Between the abundance of traditional agencies, new mid-size and boutique firms, and even small virtual agencies, there are many experts that can fill your needs.


Hiring an agency is like hiring staff and forming a new department, each firm needs to be properly vetted and pass key interviews, reference checks, and testing in order to be hired. Ultimately, the choice will represent your organization and, in many cases, be the outward facing representative for the multitude of programs and initiatives you will have them undertake.


In a new article for CommPRO “PR RFPs:  Client Best Practices”, we outline key things clients can do to ensure that the process is conducted in a way that will encourage agency engagement in their process.  


Here are the key takeaways: 

  • Before issuing an RFP, send a shorter and quick-to-complete RFQ to agencies that you have researched based on their industry experience and communications expertise. This is important not only to better understand their capabilities, but to determine their interest and ensure there are no conflicts.
  • RFPs should only be sent to a shortlist of agencies that have been researched, pre-screened, and which appear to have the right mix of capabilities and experience to meet your needs. Don’t ask agencies to complete an RFQ or RFP if you’re just testing the waters or the budget hasn’t been signed off on. It’s a waste of time and will damage your reputation.  
  • The RFP must include all the information an agency to determine if they are a good fit and want to participate. The clarity of the RFP’s scope of work, program goals, and measures of success, as well as the inclusion of a budget, are essential to agency participation. 
  • Respecting agency time, it is important to make the process of completing an RFQ and RFP quick and efficient. A good rule of thumb is to ask only for the information you really need to pick firms for presentations.
  •  Based on the RFP, pick two or three (at the most) finalists for presentations and evaluation of fit, since this is the step that requires the most work. Be prepared to provide agencies the courtesy of feedback on presentations.

In addition to these points, clients looking for agencies to develop comprehensive programs or develop materials as part of the hiring process should plan on compensating them for their time.


It should be no surprise that these best practices are at the core of CommunicationsMatch™’s online RFQ/RFP tool, Agency Select™, which was developed in partnership with RFP Associates. Our qualifications-based search process is the starting point for creating shortlists of agencies or professionals based on industry expertise and capabilities. And, the streamlined RFQ and RFP templates make it simple for clients to create, send and review proposals. For agencies, they provide the information needed to make the decision to respond, quickly and efficiently.


As we write in the CommPRO article, following these client guidelines for RFPs is essential. “Fishing expeditions, rigged processes, lack of a budget, short deadlines, or poorly structured RFPs discourage agency engagement.” 


We should be clear, that while we have focused on the client side of the RFP process, agencies also need to have a disciplined process for responding to RFQs and RFPs. We recently highlighted ways in which they can increase their new business win ratio, and will build on this in an upcoming article.      

Simon Erskine Locke, founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch™, Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz principals, RFP Associates.

Former corporate communications and agency leaders, Locke, Drake and Udowitz partnered to deliver the industry’s first integrated online agency search and RFP tools, Agency Select™, and help clients with projects that range from finding agencies in local markets to complex turn-key agency of record assignments.  

Presentation Tips for the Pandemic

We were interviewed by the PR Nation podcast on the topic of how agency presentations are being conducted during the pandemic. 

Click Here for the Recording

(we start at the 13-minute mark)

It’s been a year since we first had to jump on Zoom for staff meetings, client updates, and other conversations, working through the technology, learning how to share documents, use the chat feature, and arrange our backgrounds.


The pandemic also has forced clients to conduct agency reviews online through the cold lens of the teleconference platform.We’ve all had to pitch our wares to people we’d like to meet but now can’t see because so many have their cameras turned off.


Even as we hope for an end to social distancing, it’s unclear whether all new business pitches will return to an in-person format which is why Robert Johnson asked Robert Udowitz of RFP Associates for some advice and tips developed just for this conversation. 


Some tips:


  1. Foremost, clients have to be equally aware as agencies of the Zoom environment, and to be careful of being in a quiet environment avoiding distractions. 
  2. More than ever, Zoom is not for the “musical” version of the agency’s written proposal that has already been read.
    1. It’s smarter to require new information that addresses questions that came from the proposal rather than have the agency come in to rehash 60 pages of strategy, tactics and agency background
  3.  To this end, clients need to make sure they get what they need out of the presentations. And, it's best to ensure the agencies focus on addressing the scope of work more than anything else.
  4.  Prepare your internal team to be-ready and arrive ahead of time --- and put agencies in waiting room before presentation to avoid awkward small talk and waiting for everyone to be assembled.
  5.  Same with concluding the interview. Be direct and end the discussion on-time
  6.  Require that each of the team members speak - especially the day-to-day account person


  1. Consider the media training exercises you offer clients and the tips you provide them for TV/radio - be short, brief, and impactful. And, don’t forget to listen.
  2. Video required - may sound obvious but we've already watched a presentation where one person preferred to show their profile photo instead of being “live"
  3. Don’t be distracted - We've seen the obvious multi-tasking while on a team presentation and watched a person being called upon who has clearly been distracted with something else. That can’t happen…even if it kills you. Same with dogs, doorbells, children - all may be acceptable once the account is won but not at all when still pitching to win.
  4. Dress for success - professional dress required
  5. Slides can be heavier than normal - Keeping PPT slides short is usually the rule but, unlike webinars, you can stay longer on a slide and go through important bullets. This helps clients who want to focus on what you’ve put in front of them. Switching slides too fast – even if they are graphics – doesn’t work well during an agency presentation
  6. “Project Chemistry” – meaning that it’s important to demonstrate team unity – from smooth transitions; to all team members conveying comfort in interjecting a point or taking on a question.
  7. It’s no secret that one of most important aspects of live presentations for clients is the chemistry component:  “Do I like these people, and can I work with them?”  Zoom makes it more challenging to signal good chemistry than an in-person presentation.
  8. Agencies should work hard ahead of time to rehearse their Zoom presentation and give and take with any prospective client . Then come to the Zoom presentation without sounding too rehearsed, but rather sounding natural and at ease. It’s worth the practice.

Overarching tips/thoughts:

When you consider the old dog and pony days of dragging your presentation team across town or traveling to a different city, this is now a real concentrated process that requires clients and agencies to be really organized and prepared ahead of time. It also creates a degree of fatigue and, frankly, boredom, which can be overcome with preparations from both sides ahead of time. 


In many ways Zoom prevents a certain type of levity and repartee that you’d ordinarily try to create before a physical presentation. Now you’re on stage for a focused period of time, where you have to consider keeping everyone’s interest and preventing fatigue in a 90 minute or so amount of time.

Exclusive to Page Society: Improve Your PR Agency Track Record: Conduct Agency Search as You Do Executive Recruiting

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

Listen Here

Flack Pack - FP_S2E30 - Our Segment.mp3
MP3 Audio File 75.3 MB

Why Don’t Organizations Hire Agencies Like They Hire Employees?

New Research By RFP Associates and CommunicationsMatch Uncovers Practices and their Influence on Client Satisfaction with PR Agencies

Organizations worldwide last year spent $15 billion on outside public relations counsel and services, estimates The Holmes Report, retaining from among tens of thousands of agencies --  ranging in size from large multi-nationals to single-counselor operations -- vying to represent the brands and reputations of corporations, non-profits and government institutions. 


While public relations trade media and organizations do a good job tracking and recognizing agency new business wins, agency/client programs and innovations, and other sector-wide developments, one issue has received scant attention until now:  how organizations go about identifying, evaluating and ultimately hiring public relations agencies. 


Do client organizations treat the hiring of a communications/PR agency as they do the hiring of a mid- or senior level executive?  Do they vet numerous candidates, create and issue a “job description” (RFP), retain an outside firm and/or employ technology to qualify candidates, and conduct interviews (presentations), and narrow the list, before appointing the very best agency to serve the organization? 


RFP Associates and CommunicationsMatch™, with the support of Researchscape, decided to explore these and related questions by conducting the first national study on the public relations search and hiring practices of Fortune 1000 companies and large associations.


Our research, “The Impact of the Agency Selection Process on Public Relations Programs and Outcomes,” revealed that while chief communications officers and senior public relations executives allocate significant budgets for outside public relations services – often bringing in multiple agencies -- they typically employ an approach to agency search and hiring that bears little resemblance to the manner in which their organizations would go about hiring mid- and senior-level executives. For example, only 40% of respondents said they check agency references for verifying work, experience, and performance. 

You Can Get a Copy of our Report Here

Download the full infographic here

Other key findings:

  • Too small of a net is cast -- About two-thirds of communications executives said they rely solely on their previous experience with, or knowledge of, public relations agencies, and word-of-mouth from peers, to identify just two to five agency candidates at the beginning of a search. Respondents indicated a limited use of search consultants or even online tools or resources, in contrast to employee recruiting, for which executive recruiting firms, local joblines, LinkedIn, or national services such as Indeed are typically utilized. 
  • Not all requests for proposals (RFPs) are created equal, and many lack sufficient information required by agencies to respond most effectively -- Only a little more than half of respondents said they provide budget information or selection criteria in their RFPs, and fewer than three in 10 include confidential information which would presumably be useful to agency candidates asked to develop effective communications program ideas during the “pitch” process.

In terms of the agencies they hire, communications executives overall reported high levels of satisfaction (65% said they were “very” or “completely” satisfied with their agency), but a closer examination revealed some trouble spots:

  • Agencies underwhelm during the RFP process -- Significant numbers of respondents reported shortcomings on the part of agencies in their responses to RFPs, noting that agency proposals and presentations are often seen as boilerplate, agencies seem to be “up-selling” during the process, and agencies fall short on their response to the scope of work and program goals, budgets, and staffing requirements.
  • After the contract is signed, some aspects of agency performance are troubling – Consistently, about 40% of communications executives were only moderately or slightly satisfied with agencies’ performance.  Agency proactivity, account coordination, quality, staff turn-over, meeting objectives, meeting budget and deadlines were all issues of concern for respondents.  Seven in ten respondents were moderately or less satisfied with agency proactivity and 44% with agency’s meeting objectives.
  • Executives with PR agency experience are tougher on themselves and agencies – Communications executives with prior public relations agency experience consistently indicated lower satisfaction than their peers without agency backgrounds on such measures as available resources to identify agency candidates, the number of agency candidates identified, the method to shortlist candidates, and the qualifications of shortlisted agency candidates.
  • Higher-compensated agencies receive lower marks – Communications executives reported healthy public relations agency budgets, with 25% indicating they paid their most significant agency more than $1 million annually, while one third reported spending between $250,000 to $1 million a year.  Interestingly, however, respondents who hired lesser-compensated agencies consistently reported higher agency satisfaction levels.

These and other findings led to these core conclusions:  (1) Client organizations are not evaluating candidate agencies as strictly as they would candidate employees; and (2) A better, more comprehensive agency search process – one in which organizations accord the same level of research, due diligence, review and evaluation as they typically do when hiring a mid- or senior-level employee – delivers better outcomes, leads to the selection of an agency that meets or exceeds expectations, and results in longer, more productive, and presumably more cost effective client-agency relationships.


We’ve included recommendations in our report, and invite you to download it here and let us know your thoughts on the topic.


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.

The Agency Search Process: Does It Drive Agency Satisfaction & Successful Outcomes?

RFP Associates has partnered with CommunicationsMatch, and Researchscape to conduct the industry’s first national research into the agency search and hiring processes. The goal is to provide data and insights around the contributions made by the search process to agency satisfaction and program outcomes.


The most exciting piece of this announcement is that we have been selected to present our findings at the second annual Bridge Conference, hosted by the Institute of Public Relations Research on April 11-12 in Washington, DC.


Hiring a PR or communications agency is one of the most important decisions communications and marketing leaders make. There’s the cost of an agency to consider, but perhaps far more important is the fact that you’re asking a third party to manage your company’s brand and reputation.


While making the right decision when it comes to hiring agencies is potentially a key driver of business success, a question that’s unanswered is whether or not the search process companies use to find agencies will make that success more likely.


By researching the methods and processes from those who are involved in it from start to finish we hope to improve the way our industry approaches agency selection and help make it a fair and transparent process.


If you make the hiring decisions at your organization you have until March 15 to participate in our survey. Here's the link.

Can The RFP Process Be Improved?

With a Willing Industry, Of Course It Can

The only way to improve the PR Agency RFP Process Is to look under the hood and fix the problems and complaints heard from both sides.

Why Do Agencies Hate the RFP Process?

We’ve heard a lot of colorful and even off-color language about this, but it tends to boil down to five main reasons:

  1. Agencies would simply rather win business through referrals
  2. The odds of winning are so low that participating in the RFP process is like entering a lottery
  3. The process is undoubtably rigged for an incumbent firm
  4. Templated RFPs for communications are a sign that they were not designed for hiring an agency
  5. Publicly issued RFPs aren’t worth the effort


We collaborated with CommunicationsMatch to resolve what we think are these main sticking points.

Please read the full post - Public Relations RFPs: How to Improve the Agency RFP Process. Another version appears on CommPro - PR RFPs: Time to Reinvent a Broken Process.

Guest Blog - PR Agencies: How to Achieve Better Search Outcomes

How to Improve Agency Search

Given the critical importance of getting agency search right, the article focuses on the importance of having a well-managed process to search for, shortlist, and choose communications partners.   


Role of Word-of-Mouth in Agency Search

More than 76% of respondents to our 2017 Agency Search Report cited asking peers for recommendations to find agencies. However, along with my co-authors Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz, principals of RFP Associates, we argue that companies need to go beyond word-of-mouth recommendations if they are to find agencies that will be the best fit for their businesses.


Reduce Agency Turnover, Increase Diversity 

Why? For one, because the industry’s high agency turnover rate (in the agency search report, 37% of respondents said they were looking to hire new agencies) underscores mismatches in capabilities, needs and expectations. In addition, it’s important to look beyond who you know to find qualified diverse agencies.    


Agency Measures of Success to Guide Searches

The article explains the importance of drafting a “measures of success” document to guide agency searches and support a thorough RFQ (Request for Qualifications) and RFP (Request for Proposals) process to select finalists for presentations.


Capabilities and Chemistry in Agency Search

The article and our other Agency Search Resources address the importance of capabilities and chemistry in the search process, as well as asking the right questions to find the right match.


Agency Search Technology

We also note that search and PR RFP technology will change the search process for the better, but there continues to be a need for qualitative assessments of capabilities as outlined in our Guide to Agency Search. 

Read the article “New Client Guide to Agency Search: A Path to Better Outcomes.” 


Guest post by Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM 

Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies. CommunicationsMatch’s agency search and online RFP platform, developed with RFP Associates, simplify the search and agency hiring process. Using these or other tools, make comprehensive searches for agencies, consultants and freelancers quick and more efficient. And, requesting information from agencies and issuing an RFP becomes a simple, manageable process. For companies where bandwidth for agency search is an issue, our Agency Search Consulting services leverage our platforms to provide everything from search support to turn-key management of the entire search process.  Search for communicators.  Become a communications agency or individual member to create a profile.

Searching for a Global Public Relations Agency: Focus on Multi-Market Coordination and Budget

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.  

Embed from Getty Images

These are the issues global public relations agencies must better address when responding to RFPs for global programs.  And they are among the most important criteria prospective clients need to check off during the RFP process.


It’s ironic, but at least one global agency CEO has conceded to us first-hand that only 30 percent of his clients/accounts are truly “global;” yet most global PR agency networks portray a very different impression – unless and until they’re pressed. 

For agencies today, it’s simply not enough to include a graphic in a proposal, or a PowerPoint slide in a presentation, showing a lot of pinpoints on a world map or a lengthy list of affiliates across four continents.  A prospective client with a global brief wants to see and hear about concrete evidence that an agency candidate has successfully managed client work in multiple markets across international boundaries, and has produced the kinds of results sought by the client.


Agencies can and should document such successes in a number of ways, including written case studies, graphically pleasing components of PowerPoint/Prezi presentations, and by lining up client references who can speak knowledgeably about the agency’s global management prowess. With these examples, expertise in a particular sector or industry is less important than a demonstration of multi-market coordination and  budget finesse.


And then there’s an agency’s willingness and ability to work within a prospective client’s budget. Unfortunately, we’ve seen very little of that in the global agency searches RFP Associates has undertaken in recent years.  In our Silicon Valley client’s case, three agency candidates withdrew from consideration after receiving our RFP, citing their inability to “make the budget work.”  And the two finalists struggled to explain how they would manage the budget across the key European and Asian markets important to the client’s thought leadership program.  They both presented budget options which exceeded the client’s budget ceiling, and which assigned funding levels, but little detail on activity, to regional agency offices in Europe and Asia.


When an agency reacts to an RFP request for budget management detail by walking away or by wringing its hands and complaining that “there’s not enough” to adequately fund a program, it reveals a focus on its geographic business model and/or bottom line – and its inability to think creatively with the prospective client’s needs in mind.    


How should an agency more effectively respond to budget management requests in its proposal or new business presentation?  The agency might consider outlining a “typical” month in the life of an account, and offer detail on how agency offices would interact with one another and what kind of results would be produced during that month.  Or, it might conduct research ahead of time and create for the prospective client an “opportunity calendar” presenting potential activities in various markets at various times throughout the year – activities and timing that would enable the agency to make the best use of the client’s available budget, without over-servicing and losing money throughout the year. 


Either way, the agency should discuss more than how many hours of time a client will receive in each market, and convey to the client that agency personnel can and will be activated and coordinated for the benefit of the client and the proposed program – and not because of an artificial and pre-determined division of revenues to each office or region.

For a client undertaking a search for an agency to serve its communications needs in multiple, international markets, a focus on agency candidates’ true experience managing multi-market programs – and doing so within a prescribed budget – is essential. 


A case study or two with detail on how an agency managed a program in France, or China, or another sole market, is inadequate.  A client should ask for explanations of how an agency coordinated a program or campaign across two, three or four international markets simultaneously.  The client should also ask for access to an agency’s client references who can speak in detail about the agency’s performance on those accounts.  And finally, the client should ask for case studies and references that showcase the work of at least some of the individuals identified by the agency as would-be staffers on the prospective client’s account.


On the question of a candidate’s stewardship of a global program budget, a client should be open to alternative budget options.  At the same time, it should insist that agency candidates provide details not only on how they would segment the budget across markets and offices, but also on the specific activities and work that would be accomplished in each. 

For our Silicon Valley client, while there were inadequacies on the part of both agency finalists, it was the selected agency’s ability to demonstrate it had experience managing multi-market programs, it would be nimble, and  that it would produce results for our client without exceeding the budget offered – which tipped the scales in that agency’s favor.

- Steve Drake

This post originally appeared on the International Public Relations Association website

The RFP Is Alive and Well – and Should Remain that Way

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

Shoehorning Your Capabilities Won’t Help You Win A Cinderella Client

Even in today’s competitive environment, where each and every new business opportunity should be approached with care, too many agencies still attempt to shoehorn tangential experience into an RFP response.  When the odds are naturally against your winning any client pitch, it’s more important to be selective and to focus on your core strengths than it is to position your agency as something it’s not.


When you spend the hours it takes to respond properly to an RFP you have to be as certain as possible that you can win.  If you aren’t preparing a proposal with confidence -- or find yourself squeezing your foot into that proverbial shoe -- perhaps the best bet is to take a pass and focus on serving the clients you have.


When counseling agencies on their RFP responses we advise them not to stretch their capabilities even when they are trying to branch into new fields of expertise.  This is not to say that they shouldn’t leverage the past experience of new employees or even bring in a freelancer to participate in a pitch. But again, if you are not automotive experts don’t rationalize that the work you once did for an airline will help a potential client in the automotive industry.


Don’t forget that capabilities include staffing and internal resources. Here, too, agencies should not go out on a limb by making over assurances that they can start on day-one fully-staffed and ready to go. Our industry’s days of bait-and-switch should be over by now, yet that reputation still exists.


Clients are myopic, they know what they want and their expectations are very high once the RFP responses start coming in. They don’t want to be distracted with qualifications that don’t fit the articulated criteria. Any conditions that don’t apply to your agency are probably red flags for you not to proceed.


Look internally before pitching externally. Follow some simple methods or take definitive actions to determine whether you have the chops to bid on the next contract that comes across your desk, and if so, whether  you can make it work in an honest, transparent way.


Litmus Test - Create internal guidelines to determine what new business you should go after and periodically review it for updating. Map out where your industry strengths are and how deep or divergent you realistically can go, making a clear demarcation of the end point. This exercise won’t hurt to determine the level of services you offer, too. Refer to this litmus test whenever you’re in doubt over whether you should respond to an opportunity or not.


Partner – Perhaps your agency does have some strong qualifications outlined in an RFP, but not all. Seeking another agency or independent counselor that can fill your gaps with their own expertise may be a solution that could lead to a strong, winning response, and/or  future collaborations.  Said partner should be a collaborator from the start, though, to ensure your teams work well together and can present with confidence when you become a finalist.


Don’t Over Promise – Many an agency has gotten itself way over its head by assuring a potential client the agency can handle the project only to crash and burn later on.  Make sure you have the horses to pull the cart before you propose your way into the final presentation – and well before you sign the contract.


Deep Dive – If you really want that piece of new business but don’t have the chops to handle it today, hit the conferences, retain an industry expert (even a non-communications expert), read the trades and textbooks. Supplement your real experience with the knowledge that the client needs.


Learn from your losses - Go back and thoroughly review the pitches you didn’t win.  Rereading old proposals and honestly reviewing your losses (rather than kvetching that the client had it wired for your competition from the start) is the best way to prepare for your next win. The best agencies even dedicate an individual for an "exit" interview when they've lost an account. We are proponents of providing feedback to losing agencies, in the hopes it will help them and our industry in responding better and smarter the next time.  

- Robert Udowitz

A version of this blog also appeared here.

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,

beginning with the dizzying array of large, boutique and specialty agencies in the market today—making “shopping” for the best one that much more challenging. They also cite the need to bring in their procurement departments and concerns over agencies that over-promise and under-deliver.

For all of the suspicion, criticism and speculation, however, a fair and well-managed RFP process remains the most effective way for client organizations to compare the capability, creativity and readiness of PR agencies competing for their work. “Influence 100,” a recent Holmes Report survey of top corporate communications executives from around the world, found that 35% of communications executives use a “traditional RFP process” when hiring an agency (up from 20% in 2015). That statistic is consistent with PR Council member surveys, which show that about 30% of new business generated by PR agencies of all sizes and stripes is attributed to their participation in RFP-driven competitions.

Clients that truly want to identify and hire the very best PR agency, whether for a short-term project or an ongoing contract, should undertake the same level of due diligence, review and evaluation as their human resources departments would put into the hiring of a new staff of public relations professionals—because that’s essentially what the new agency will bring to the organization.

Indeed, hiring entities should attend to these five must-dos:

1. Go all in with your RFP. If you want to draw the most strategic and creative thinking from the agencies competing for your business, your RFP should be as comprehensive as possible. Background on your organization and its communications needs should be much more than a few paragraphs cut and pasted from your website; it should include information and insights on why you are seeking to hire an agency, on your competitive position and challenges, and even some of the skeletons in your closet. At the same time, the centerpiece of the RFP—the scope of work—should be detailed enough to answer the question, “What do these guys want us to do?” yet leave plenty of room for the creative and unique approaches you’ll want to see from the agency candidates.

2. Include budget parameters. Omitting a planned budget in an RFP is like telling a contractor to build you a home without providing any parameters, yet that is what many client organizations choose to do. Without guidance and direction, no agency can intelligently propose and price the work you require. Clients that insist on being vague on budget—usually motivated to see how creative an agency will be—ultimately do themselves a disservice by making it difficult to compare competing agencies on an apples-to-apples basis.

3. Keep the candidate agency list short, and get a signed NDA before distributing the RFP. If you do as I suggest and provide material and non-public details about your organization in the RFP, you should first distribute a non-disclosure agreement to all candidate agencies. The NDA should also ask agencies to certify they have no client or financial conflicts.

4. Build and manage a dedicated evaluation team. An agency typically works with and supports departments and functions beyond corporate communications or public affairs. At the onset of the search we recommend recruiting an agency evaluation team of six to ten individuals representing your department and your internal “clients,” to emphasize their stake and responsibility in making a decision that is best for the entire organization.

5. Maintain a level playing field throughout the RFP process. Transparency is not only critical in the agency search process, it sets the tone for the (hopefully) long-term relationship with the selected agency. If you truly want to determine the very best agency competing for your business, ensure that no one agency receives a competitive advantage along the way. That means providing all agencies with the same information at once, holding a single bidders call for questions and even telling them who they are competing against.

The bottom line for clients: the RFP process can work smoothly, for clients and agencies alike. But it works best when clients are open about (yet careful with) information on their organizations, when the evaluation team represents all of the departments to be served by the agency and when there’s a level playing field throughout. It also means that the agency that wins your business will have truly earned it.

-- Steve Drake

This post was originally published in PR News.

Bringing Your Agency’s A-Game to a New Business Presentation

The agency search was down to four finalists. Each had provided stellar written responses during the proposal phase, and seemed ready to take the stage.  Per the RFP Associates process, the finalists were asked to go beyond the contents of their written responses to the RFP, and to delve deeper into the important elements of our client’s global campaign.


Sure, there would be just one winner, but we all wanted this to be an even horserace, with equal odds for each of the finalist agencies.   

By the end of the presentations, though, three of the four firms barely managed to get to the finish line, and stumbled off the track, looking as if they belonged anywhere but in the finals of a PR agency search.  Indeed, those three finalists distinguished themselves more for what they shouldn’t have brought to a finals competition than for delivering the professional, well-oiled presentations we wanted our client to witness.


Agency One was a large multinational. Its proposal was so well thought out, even cerebral, that our client thought it would be a favorite in the final round.  For the presentation Agency One chose to bring an SVP and VP in addition to a senior colleague from Europe. The colleague and division he represented were not in the original proposal or even the agency website! During the presentation it was clear he was there solely for the purpose of upselling our client on a brand new, and largely untested, offering.  Said agency spent at least an hour of the allotted two to explain – and sell – the new service.  The result? Almost instant elimination! 


Agency Two was a reputable mid-sized firm. From the start of the presentation it was clear the team was thrown together for the presentation – and that most of the team members were largely unfamiliar with the contents of the agency’s proposal.  Needless to say, they  were not all on the same page. Not only did they talk on top of each other but they kept staring at their leader to be certain they were responding correctly. One member of the team spoke with a confidence that wreaked more of bravado than knowledge. Afterward, our clients simply shook their collective heads: this agency was simply not ready for prime time. Nor was it sustainable. 


Agency Three was a specialized multinational agency with excellent experience in the type of work our client required. Unfortunately, none of that came out during the presentation. Despite our client’s well-articulated requirements for specific global markets, Agency Three did not properly demonstrate that it could – or would – effectively communicate with overseas offices, with the media in the region, or even with the agency’s would-be client. 


Agency Four – the winning agency – was a localized multinational, meaning it had been a reputable local agency that was successfully acquired and integrated into a global firm. Its team was in-sync from the beginning. Team members displayed depth and research to support why they were best suited for our client’s work. The team was conversational yet well-oiled, making the chemistry with our client almost immediate. Criticisms leveled at Agency Four’s  written response were efficiently addressed and corrected. Even the team’s attention to detail was punctuated by the presence of the agency’s IT support person, who came for the presentation and brought a speaker system to ensure the audio could be heard and would not malfunction.


Let’s be clear. In our searches there is complete transparency and all agencies compete on a level playing field. The four finalists’ written proposals scored well on the scorecards developed for this search. And while we could have brought in only two or three agencies as finalists, the four that presented belonged there based on the quality of their submitted responses.


It seemed as if Agencies One, Two and Three simply put their all into their proposals and had nothing more to bring to the table. RFP Associates searches are robust because elements like the presentation portion encourage the agencies to respond beyond their written proposal.


We recommend several formulas for successful presentations:


Present to win – This is it. You made it to the final round, and now have to ensure the time, money, and effort all pay off.   The odds of winning are mathematically against you unless you go all-out to prove to the client that you want and deserve this business. Bring your A-Game and pull no punches. This means go beyond the boundaries of what has been asked of you so far.  

Come armed with research, media plans, original video, and answers for every possible question. And, please rehearse. 


Handouts and enlargements are critical – Bring copies of your presentation, supplemental handouts (e.g, timelines, budgets) or poster board-sized visuals of your plan. It’s simply too late to provide your PowerPoint via email as a thank you and follow-up later that day. If it’s not in our client’s hands for the post-presentation discussion it’s your loss when we can’t refer to a slide we need to review.


Chemistry counts – The dynamic between your colleagues is as important as the rapport you need to establish (quickly) with the potential client. Don’t walk into the conference room intent on connecting your laptop. Instead, spend two minutes B-S-ing with the client about how much you appreciate the opportunity, or a friend you might have in common. Create a conversational environment. This is often one of the most relevant questions our clients ask themselves:  Can I work with these guys?


Learn from Your Mistakes – Despite their missteps, Agency Two impressed us when they asked for an exit-type interview with a non-member of the presentation team, citing the agency’s best practice policy. We were happy to oblige.


- Robert Udowitz

A similar version of this piece originally appeared on the Gould+Partners blog.

Agencies: 3 Tips Toward Greater RFP Response Success

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.

For PR agencies, RFPs also reflect a business and financial reality. According to the PR Council, one-third of new agency business stems from the RFP process. 

When an agency receives an RFP, the fork in the road is evident: “Should we compete and, if so, how should we respond?”  Your odds of winning new business when casting the proverbial net are directly related to the number and the quality of agencies with which you’re competing.

Unless your agency can show that a combination of your past experience, current expertise and forward thinking is better than your competition, you must seriously weigh the benefits of putting your time and resources into a response for any RFP that crosses your desk.  

Is there one guaranteed method of winning an RFP? Probably not. But here are three tips toward greater RFP response success: 

  • Evaluate your agency’s response readiness. Don’t try to shoehorn tangential work into a proposal and then wonder why you were eliminated. If you are not transportation experts, don’t rationalize that the work you once did for an airline will help a potential client in the automotive industry. It doesn’t work that way. Also, studying your past losses and rereading old proposals (both winners and losers) are the best ways to prepare for your next win. The best agencies even dedicate an individual for an "exit" interview when they've lost an account. We are proponents of providing feedback to losing agencies, in the hopes it will help them and our industry in responding better and smarter the next time.   
  • Prepare a winning proposal. We know some agencies are concerned about sharing proprietary ideas during the RFP process. That’s what NDAs are for, and we don’t recommend agencies jump into any search process without one. Don’t hold back in your response to an RFP. This is your one and only opportunity to impress a potential client away with how great your agency is. If you’ve decided to pursue an RFP, toss out the template response and put your all into demonstrating what your firm can offer. Show what you know and how your new client will benefit. And, please, proofread before you submit the RFP. We can’t tell you how many typos and silly grammatical errors our clients have noticed.
  • Provide something not requested. Going the extra mile impresses new clients and is a clear way of showing that you can be both proactive and creative. This can take the form of surveys, industry intelligence reports, competitive analysis, or even providing media interview leads before you’re chosen.  And, be sure to provide client references who will vouch for your proactivity and your ability to stay one step ahead of them. It's often what clients want the most. 

-Robert Udowitz

Adapted from a blog that first appeared in a post for Gould+Partners.

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? 

We believe that more is best.  If you read one of our typical RFPs (about eight pages) you'd note 75% background, facts, and statement of work; and 25% requirements for the response, along with deadlines. What's the goal of an RFP anyway?  From our perspective, it’s to empower any agency to compete and win on a level playing field. 


So when we hear that one of our RFPs is “too elaborate,” we understand that the agency leveling that charge would rather be sole-sourced and not be required to compete for our client’s business.  But when a client hires RFP Associates, we understand that it wants to hire the best, most qualified agency – not the easy (but ultimately riskier and most expensive) process of sole-sourcing. 


We’ve learned, and our clients have learned, that a well-prepared and -written RFP must include:

  • Overview of client business/organization.
  • Explanation of why the RFP is being issued, and what overall the organization hopes to achieve.
  • Detailed, descriptive information on the business/organization and its key objectives/strategies.
  •  Information and background on any relevant history, sensitivities which might affect the organization’s public relations program or stance.
  • Details on whom the company or organization considers to be its key stakeholders.
  • Overview of expected scope of work.
  • A budget (see our blog on this topic).
  • Requirements for benchmarking and measurement.
  • Proposal submission details. 

Are RFPs with these elements too “elaborate?”  We think not.  A better descriptor for a good RFP is “comprehensive” – providing enough information to ensure the best agency will win your business and earn your confidence. 


Postscript: That "elaborate" RFP was responded to by six agencies and won by a large, well-known firm.


- Robert Udowitz

PR Agencies Can Do More to be “RFP Ready”

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.

While so much has changed about how public relations is planned and delivered, very little has changed in the way that most organizations go about identifying, evaluating and hiring a PR agency.  And unfortunately for most firms, that typically means an incomplete RFP, a less-than-equitable competition, and would-be clients that may be less than ready to hire a firm, much less manage it!


Even though PR Council research suggests that RFPs continue to be an important source of new business for many agencies, we had heard from numerous agencies that “we dont respond to RFPs,” or “RFPs are typically wired for one agency,” or “I just can’t put my people through another dog and pony show.” While you might assume that the Council's members differ greatly from the Counselors Academy attendees, you would be impressed to learn that many in our audience dominate their markets, have merged with or acquired other firms, boast impressive client lists, and bill into the high six figures, or more.


RFP Associates advice generally falls into two categories:  (1) understand and assert your “rights” as an RFP recipient; and (2) take an honest look at your new business strategies and practices, and improve your “RFP readiness.”


Drop us a note and we'll send you our presentation, “Mastering RFP Evaluation and Response to Win More Business”?  And visit our site to learn more about RFP Response Ready.


We’re ready if and when you’re ready.

Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz

5 Key Components to Use For Your Next RFP

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).

But finding the best-fitting firm is the linchpin to success. Beware of automatically jumping to hire the agency your friend used; don’t simply go through the PR trades to engage a firm; and, never simply use Google as your guide for selecting public relations services.

Not unlike hiring an employee, when hiring a PR firm you should spend as much time as necessary to properly screen and check on their past performance. Remember that your investment in time and money will become a reflection on your company.

The best method for assessing PR agencies for their skills and expertise is the request for proposal, or RFP. When written well, the most capable firm will provide you with a response that will demonstrate their skills to you and will be the start of a productive relationship.

Here are the best ways to structure your RFP:

  1. Introduction and Background – You should provide an overview of your business/organization, including its history, and explain why the RFP is being issued. Detail your objectives and strategies and include a non-disclosure if there is any proprietary technology involved. Don’t forget to include your key audiences and, for housekeeping purposes, who the agency will report to.
  2. Scope of Work – This is the heart of the RFP and will be most instrumental in helping you find the agency you need, provided of course it’s detailed, concise and well written. Be certain of what you need the agency to do for your organization. More times than not, the SOW becomes the point of most friction between agency and a client because the project scope may not have been clearly spelled out and the agency interpreted it to mean something completely different than its client.
  3. Budget Parameters – An absolute amount or a range the company or organization intends to allocate for professional fees and out-of-pocket expenses for the public relations program needs to be included. Those who do not provide a budget in the RFP do themselves and an agency a tremendous disservice. Would you walk into a BMW dealership with only enough money to buy a Chevy? An honest budget helps the agency respond smarter to your RFP. It’s ok if your budget is limited, but the bidding agencies need to know from the start of the process.
  4. Measurement/Review – Require the agencies to explain their process for benchmarking and measuring success. This will ultimately become a barometer of how successful the project is.
  5. Case studies and references – It’s important to ask any agency competing for your business to demonstrate that they’ve done similar work in the past. Request at least two examples of similar work completed and then ask to speak to past or current clients to double check their capabilities.

Once you’ve selected your agency, the partnership begins. Please provide them with the information and access they need to succeed. This should start early and should be continuous. Also, make sure to create a method where they report to you frequently, so problems can't evolve.

The more time you spend on a quality RFP is a worthy investment as it will greatly improve your chances of finding a capable PR agency to help accomplish your strategic branding objectives.

A version of the above was first published in PR over Coffee, a popular PR blog by Dave Manzer for DIY entrepreneurs and PR pros alike.

Winning RFPs Make Winning Client-Agency Partnerships


Our client ISTH and the agency RFP Associates helped it find, The Yu Crew, are double award winners!


Last week they won the American Society of Association Executives' Gold Circle Award for the best-integrated communications campaign, best media/PR and the very top Overall Excellence Award (aka Best in Show). And a mere two days later the client-agency duo won a Silver Anvil and Award of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America.  

The awards were given for their collective efforts in creating the first World Thrombosis Day. And, while WTD might sound like a publicity-inspired milestone, it was selflessly introduced to increase awareness of thrombosis as the top cardiovascular killer globally. In the United States alone as many as 900,000 people could be affected by deep vein thrombosis each year, according to the CDC. Shockingly, thrombosis can start with a blood clot in a deep vein, usually in the legs; up to 30 percent will die within a month of diagnosis.

In 2012 The International Society of Thrombosis and Haemostasis asked RFP Associates to help identify, evaluate and hire 
a firm to implement a research-based effort to refresh and formalize the ISTH brand, and to help communicate ISTH messages and information to current and prospective members. The overall goal was to help ISTH enjoy more stature and visibility as the leading international medical professional society in their field.


The Yu Crew was initially one of 18 agencies reviewed through a request for qualification (RFQ) process, of which nine were chosen to submit responses to the RFP. Of those, ISTH, with RFP Associates’ assistance, selected four finalists.

Pictured are: Louise Bannon (right), ISTH Director of Marketing and Membership, accepts  the 2015 ASAE Gold Circle Award  for Overall Excellence

The Yu Crew at PRSA's Silver Anvil Awards
The Yu Crew at PRSA's Silver Anvil Awards


How did Pattie Yu and her upstart virtual “crew” win the ISTH account, competing against mostly larger firms? From the start, the firm’s response to the RFP was a cut above in its clean approach and description toward how it would help ISTH. Yu threw the cookie-cutter response away, and was bold enough to suggest - and even provide - a new logo for the Society. Yu assured ISTH of her ability and creativity, backed up with the staff she assembled and brought to her presentation.


ISTH was an ideal client for us.  From the start, ISTH Executive Director Tom Reiser told us he knew what he didn’t know -- public relations and branding. But, he was also well aware of what his members needed and the course he was creating to put ISTH on the map. For Tom it was never about one agency or the other; it was only about identifying an agency that was going to be the right fit for his Society and for him.  After The Yu Crew proved itself with the branding campaign it paved the way for additional work, including WTD, a dream project Tom had envisioned for several years.

To read the winning Gold Circle Awards click here.

To read the ISTH press release click here

For RFP Associates, connecting great agencies with clients is our job.  And when that connection produces the kind of excellent work discussed here – we feel we share in that win. 


Congratulations to ISTH and The Yu Crew for their well-deserved ASAE and PRSA awards!

Steve Drake & Robert Udowitz

UPDATE (December 2015) - The Yu Crew received a Best in Show for their ISTH work at the PRSA-Maryland "Best in Maryland Awards" on December 1. Read about it here

Guest Blog - Abbie Fink

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!

As we described the RFP Associates’ approach and philosophy concerning the need for a level RFP playing field, we saw a lot of nodding heads.  Many were interested in RFP Associates’ new service for PR agencies, RFP ResponseReady™.  And we were humbled that more than one attendee afterward told us, “Not only was your session helpful.  You guys articulated what I’ve been seeing and sensing about RFPs for a long time.”


But perhaps the best compliment of and endorsement for our presentation came from Abbie Fink, current Chair of the Counselors Academy of the PRSA, who had this to say in a recent blog for her successful Phoenix-based firm, HMA Public Relations:

A love/hate relationship with RFPs

Photo credit: http://associationsoft.com/request-for-proposal-the-antiquated-approach-to-selecting-a-service-provider/The subject of RFPs has been discussed on this blog before. Everything from how much time we spend on them to whether or not we should respond in the first place.

At Counselors Academy’s spring conference, there was a session on best practices for responding to RFPs.  The session was led by Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz of RFP Associates, a communications agency search firm that improves the method of identifying, evaluating and hiring an agency. They work directly with the hiring entities.

The session was part therapy and part informational, as we all had some things to share about our frustrations with the process.  A few that were mentioned:

  • No budget identified
  • Asks for spec work
  • Is wired for the incumbent
  • Won’t share who else received the request
  • “One-inch margins, 12-point type, three-ring binder” type requirements having nothing to do with the ability to do the work

Coming from the perspective of the hiring entity, Steve and Robert offered some words of wisdom:

  • Evaluate your response readiness. Take a look at your track record, have you been successful before.  If not, do you know why and have you addressed those reasons. Can you really do the scope of work for the budget (let’s assume there is one).  My view – don’t just respond simply to respond, these take a long time and you really need to know whether it is the right fit and the right time for your agency.
  • Strategies for long-term success. What are you doing now to position yourself to be the one to be selected. My view — This likely applies more to private-sector RFPs, but what are you doing to leverage your assets like your agency blog (thought-leadership), speaking engagements, award-competitions, etc. to showcase your talent and provide content for your response.
  • Prepare a winning proposal. Give it all you’ve got, no detail is too small and don’t provide the cookie-cutter response.  Really customize to the client’s needs. My view – this is more difficult to do in the public-sector world, but there is no reason why you can’t demonstrate and highlight your expertise, within the parameters given.
  • Present with confidence. If you get called in for a presentation, bring your A-game. Make sure everyone on the presentation team is engaged in the conversation.  My view – practice the presentation AND the possible q/a.  Make sure everyone is prepared to answer questions, not just the senior team.

I’m sure Scott and I will continue to discuss the RFP process and when responding makes the most sense.  For now, I must find that three-ring binder….

Read the original.

About Abbie S. Fink

Vice President/General Manager Abbie has been doing public relations her whole life…from organizing a picket line in 6th grade to organizing client communications today. She’s passionate about a lot of things, you’ll see. Check out Abbie's full bio

Finding a PR Firm Isn’t the Piece of Cake it Used to Be . . . and It Shouldn’t Be

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

to move the needle for your organization? You need to be assured you're getting smart thinking and measurable results -- and agencies should be accountable for their committments to their clients. 


The agency landscape is wide, and wide open.  Sometimes it feels like there are too many qualified agencies out there. But that shouldn’t guide you toward short cuts, or rushing the process.  As we’ve pointed out many times to clients and prospects, if the money you have allocated to a PR agency budget were instead going toward the hiring of two or three full-time, professional staff, how much time and effort would you and your HR department spend investigating their backgrounds, capabilities, and knowledge?


The recently released USC Annenberg biennial GAP Study assessing PR industry trends and practices expects more money to be spent in 2014 and beyond for communications. The study of 347 senior communicators says that PR-related recommendations are being taken more into consideration by senior management, who expect the function to be a contributor to organizations’ financial success. Your organization should be selecting firms with proven experience in supporting your internal managerial needs as well as your overall communications goals.


Today’s agency field includes seasoned veteran agencies, mid-sized niche players, and a crop of very competent rookies that have left some venerable firms to blaze their own paths. Whether they are local, large, full service, or specialty, there are probably dozens of agencies out there most suitable for you.  But the right agency can only be discerned through the lens of a detailed and thorough search that is tailored to your organization’s needs.


When interviewing prospective agencies it is critical to include process and procedure as key topics. Too often, we find confusion when the client-agency relationship begins if staffing, structure, reporting, billing, and contracts are not discussed in the early phases. And, we’ve even advised clients that repairing agency relationships that have gone sour may be a better use of time and resources than parting ways with that agency and starting over with a new search. 


Even agreeing on your mutual definition of success is no small feat, and so often is overlooked or not addressed during the selection process. With projects the issue might be easier (one would hope) but with longer-term, multi-year contracts it is very important to establish measureable benchmarks even before searching for your agency, and then making it clear that is what the selected agency will be judged on. Believe it or not, it will more appreciated than you’d expect.  Because any good PR firm will tell you that a good client knows what it wants and has, or develops with the agency, the metrics of success.


- Robert Udowitz

Why Small Businesses Don’t Like PR - PT 2

(original post)

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. 

If you are looking for a firm to improve your sales, you may be better off seeking a marketing firm. This nuance, too, is a cause of consternation for clients hiring agencies. PR will support sales and marketing but its focus is principally on one-on-one communications in any form, and improving a company’s internal and external positioning.


Agency size is certainly a factor for the satisfaction of small businesses seeking PR.   For example, perhaps a qualified independent practitioner is a wiser choice than a traditional brick-and-mortar agency. There are many qualified independents, with access to networks of other specialists for additional support, and they generally charge less than agencies. On the other hand, there are more and more specialized boutique agencies that may have expertise in your industry, and that offer the services you need. There are other times when larger firms can’t be overlooked because of the unique skills, long-term experience, and access to resources, skills and contacts that helped them grow to where they are today. Each will affect your budget differently, which is why planning and consideration are so critical to choosing the right firm for your organization.


There’s a wide market for public relations services, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Devoting the time to decide what you want, what you need, the budget you have, and the time and information you can provide, will dictate the level of your success.  Keep this in mind:  it’s definitely a worthwhile investment.  But only if it's a two-way partnership.


For reference, there's a good overview of PR with a nice section for small businesses at the Encyclopedia of Small Business, which includes mention of the book "Public Relations for the Entrepreneur and the Growing Business" by Norman R. Sodeberg. 

- Robert Udowitz

Why Small Businesses Don’t Like PR - Part 1

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?

Typically the largest complaint centers on cost and how it relates to value for the work provided. The average small company usually expects to pay $1to 2k a month for PR services but is astonished when firms start quoting upwards of $8 or $9k. The problem is that planning communications strategies and executing tactics are time- consuming.  The  average agency’s lowest hourly billing rate hovers around $115 for a junior person, and then starts around $200/hour for more experienced staffers.  We know it’s hard to forecast how long your work will take but even a conservative ten hours a week will put you on a fast track to $10k per month. As long as it benefits your company, it may be money well-spent.


The simple fact is that you have to treat the hiring of your PR agency similarly to (hopefully) the way you’ve treated every other aspect of your business. Choosing a firm requires time, research, planning, budgeting, benchmarking, and a clear communication of expectations.  

There’s no forgiving when businesses commit to PR but do not provide the resources or time needed for their agency to get the work done. An agency is only as good as the detail its clients provide, and its willingness to be engaged with the process. This starts early with getting materials and information to the agency quickly, and continues with being available to provide prompt answers to questions and reporter’s requests so that timelines are kept, and work can be done.

Our next post will focus on defining what you really seek from a PR firm. Click here for Part Two.

- Robert Udowitz

Time Well Spent on Searching for a New PR Agency: Their Top Concerns About the RFP Process

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

today's competitive environment, or can a big firm be nimble enough to win with its unique capabilities rather than its sheer size and might?


A pure search for an agency – one we’d define as completely transparent with a reasonable set of milestones and very detail-oriented – provides opportunities for participating agencies of all sizes to demonstrate not only their capabilities, but also their knowledge and creativity.


Too often organizations seeking a new agency are rushed to issue an RFP and hire a firm -- yesterday, if at all possible! However, selecting and contracting with a PR agency should be treated as if an organization were hiring a new employee. 


There must enough time for thoughtful deliberation and background-checking to

guarantee a long-term, successful relationship. After all, this is real money  being spent, for real results, and it should not be put to waste.


As many organizations look to hire or switch agencies, they need to be aware of agency complaints and concerns about the RFP process. Here are the chief issues we find when organizations search on their own for an agency. Each emphasizes that the proper time and resources spent on the front end of an agency search turns into well-spent time on finding the right agency partner. 


  • Client RFPs either can’t be understood or are altogether inadequate. 
  • The RFP response process is enough to about kill even the better-resourced agencies.
  • The required scope of work is ambiguous at best, non-existent at worst.
  • Clients are not willing to reveal their agency budget. 
  • Clients do not give agencies enough time to put their best foot forward.


On July 10 we've been asked by Bulldog Reporter to help agencies distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack when choosing the RFPs they want to compete for, and then to help them respond in unique ways to ensure their responses and presentations are hit out of the ballpark. The PR University Master Class, “Secrets of Winning More RFPs: Mastering RFP Evaluation and Response to Increase Agency New Business” can be found through this link. And, the great thing is that it will be available on-demand even if you're reading this at a later date.

- Robert Udowitz

Making the Case for Case Histories

It’s no secret that our anemic economy, though technically growing, has not treated public relations agencies very well.  RFP Associates has received reports of diminished billings and layoffs at agencies of all sizes, particularly here in our base of Washington, DC, where the sequester and now the government shutdown has paralyzed many once high-flying firms.


When business slows and RFPs are few and far between, what is an agency to do?  One suggestion:  build on your library of client case histories.

In virtually all RFPs we’ve managed or seen, a standard requirement is for responding agencies to share client references and case histories.  Written case histories represent one of the most trusted and effective ways for agencies to demonstrate their expertise, value, and focus on outcomes and results.


The most effective client case histories share some key characteristics.  First, they are succinct and easy to understand.  Second, they are structured in a “background-problem-program-results” fashion: they state the key communications, public affairs or marketing problem addressed, explain the key strategies undertaken by the agency, discuss research and evaluation methods, and list the outcomes of the program, preferably in quantifiable terms. 


Ideally, case studies should “name names,” and include the clients’ names as well as their contact details as references. If you are not permitted to use a client’s name in a case study, remember that industry or area-of-expertise case studies can be useful, too.  Just be sure to avoid vagueness and hyperbole, be as specific as you can regarding the work performed, and cite the specific measures and research you undertook to produce results.


Pulling together new client case histories offers agencies a number of benefits.  Not only will you have fresh material to include in your next new business proposal or presentation; your outreach to your clients, including having them review and approve the case histories, is something of a business-building activity itself!


If the economy is roughing up your agency, we urge you to continue to invest in your future by updating and adding to your library of client case histories.

- Steve Drake

The Case for Including a Budget in Every RFP

When we discuss our approach to agency search with a prospective or newly engaged client, one of the questions inevitably asked of us is:  Why should we include a budget in our RFP?


To which we respond:  If you don't want to share your budget, you might re-consider whether you are really serious about issuing the RFP at all.


Publishing a budget as part of your RFP is not a magic bullet -- you certainly need to include a well-thought out scope of work as well -- but it is essential to ensuring a smooth-running, transparent agency search process, and it's critical to finding the very best agency for your organization. 

Why do we insist that clients share a budget with prospective agencies?  While there are a number of answers to this question, they can be summed up this way:  publishing an agency budget is one of the most important steps you can make to ensure you'll find the very best agency for your organization and your communications needs.


Some clients argue that leaving out a budget forces candidate agencies to be more creative and produce more strategically sound proposals. Others say, “I need agencies to tell me how much we should be spending.” 


But issuing an RFP shouldn’t be a game of “Gotcha,” or “Can You Top This?”  Its purpose should be to elicit the agency’s best thinking, given your stated scope of work and what you plan to invest.  And, has any company or association ever decided what to spend on PR by asking its PR agency?


Indeed, your budget (including expenses) should not only be front and center in your RFP – it needs to reflect, accurately and fairly, your stated scope of work.  If you plan to spend $100k, you do yourself and the candidate agencies a huge disservice by layering into the RFP a $250K scope of work!


Providing a sound budget enables responding agencies to eliminate the guesswork, deliver their best and most creative product, and compete on a level playing field.


Here are the other reasons to determine and be up front about what your organization intends to invest in an agency relationship:

  • You won't waste your time evaluating agencies for whom your budget is too small or (less often) too great -- RFP Associates has seen several instances in which a number of agencies that fully intended to respond to an RFP did not because they couldn't live with the budget as outlined.  Had those agencies played through, submitted a proposal, and been invited to present, imagine the resentment on both sides when the true budget would have been revealed.
  • You and your organization are taken more seriously by responding agencies -- Our research tells us that agencies that see no evidence of budget in the RFP are suspicious of the issuing organizations.  "They're probably just fishing for ideas, and either have no intention of hiring an agency -- or already know who they're hiring," one agency executive recently told us.
  • You'll know very quickly whether you are asking for too much in your scope of work -- Responding agencies will make it clear, in their questions, proposals and presentations, whether your budget is fair and reasonable, or requires trade-offs and cutbacks on services and programs.  

Responding to an RFP is serious work for agencies. When they decide to pursue your business they have to prove themselves on so many detailed levels that guessing on the budget should not be one of them. As you review your candidate agencies you’ll be glad in the long run when you can compare them on equal ground.

- Steve Drake

What Are Agencies Worried About? Their Top Concerns About the RFP Process

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? 

5.  They either can’t understand or find client RFPs to be altogether inadequate.  The first impression prospective agencies have of their would-be client is often a poor one – the request-for-proposal (RFP) the client issues to agency candidates.  Agencies tell RFP Associates that most RFPs they receive prompt more questions than they answer – if the document is understandable at all!  Agencies are left scratching their heads and scrambling for answers – answers that often are never provided.  The result?  “Proposals and presentations that are, quite frankly, a stab in the dark,” one agency executive told us.


4.  The RFP response process is enough to about kill even the better-resourced agencies.  A poorly written RFP with inadequate information is one thing.  A process that makes the usual “jumping through hoops” look like child’s play is another!  Many agencies tell us they’ve walked away from new business opportunities because of the extraordinary and unrealistic requirements outlined in RFPs.  And some even say that responding to some RFPs could put existing relationships with paying clients in jeopardy.


3.  The required scope of work is ambiguous at best, non-existent at worst.  “At the end of the day, if we’re going to pitch for a piece of business, we need to have at least an inkling of what the client expects us to do,” said one senior agency executive, reflecting the views of many agencies.  Indeed, it’s hard to prepare a creative and strategic proposal or presentation if an agency is clueless about basic client expectations. 


2.  Clients are not willing to reveal their agency budget.  Perhaps an agency’s most dreaded directive from a prospective client is this:  “You need to tell us how much we should spend on this program.”  Agencies are left to second guess themselves, speculate what their competition will charge (if they even know who their competition is), and serve up timid ideas, programs with multiple and confusing budget options – and a whole lot of caveats.  Is that any way to start a business relationship where the winning agency is expected to be smart, strategic and confident?


1.  Clients do not give agencies enough time to put their best foot forward.  Second only to the lack of a budget in an RFP is the horror of an impossibly tight deadline for a brilliant and sparkling proposal or presentation.  “Clients will want us to show our brilliance, tell them how to safeguard their reputation and make their CEO look like a rock star – and they want all of that a week from now, by close of business the Monday after Thanksgiving,” an exasperated account supervisor told us recently.  

- Steve Drake

10 Things Redux

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!

The devil will always be in the details, and unfortunately a generic “how to” column like this lacks the quality and breadth of the approach any company or trade association needs to undertake with an agency search.  A respected publication like the Business Journal needs to put a little more thought into doling out advice to subscribers that will not only cost them a boatload of money but will steer their communications in the years to follow.  No attribution; no resources for its readers – how about PRSA, CPRF at the very least? We anticipated better when they asked us for our advice and even expected that they’d at least pair the column with their annual list of PR agencies.


Plain and simple, hiring an agency is one of the most important (and arguably critical) steps your company will undertake.  Without proper attention to and coordination with your organization’s overall strategic business plan it is difficult to execute a successful PR plan – and almost impossible to find the right agency to support that plan.   Think about this way: a PR agency budget is very often the equivalent to hiring several full time staffers. Wouldn’t you screen for new employees by scrutinizing their backgrounds, relevant experience, and references? Too many sour relationships can be attributed to the lack of proper planning, budgeting, and screening on the front end in the hiring of a firm for short or long-term work. The Business Journal’s tepid advice suggests no structure or process to an arduous task.


How Would We Have Handled It

Our first set of recommendations in starting the agency search process includes assessing your organization to ensure it is structured in a way and prepared to work with, and support, an external agency. From there it is equally important to determine what it is you need accomplished from the agency and what budget you have to get the work done.


Choosing a set of candidates has become a more complex part of the equation. It used to be easy: approach all of the large agencies or the ones you or your colleagues have either worked at or with. Today those agencies are endeavoring to integrate more with their ad agency cousins (through ownership) or have sliced and diced practiced groups into specialties that may or may not address your real needs. For example, the field of mid-size and boutique agencies, not to mention independents – and the competent and nimble experts they represent – should certainly be on your menu of choices.


You shouldn’t take a leap of faith with any of your agency candidates and rely on their learning about your organization once they’ve been hired. You should expect your selected agency to hit the ground running, and bring with it demonstrated experience in your industry and with the audiences you have identified.


In the next post we’ll get into surveying the pool of potential agencies and then how to make your choice.

Robert Udowitz

Fall Housecleaning Shouldn’t Automatically Mean Removing Your Agency

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.


But dusting off the cobwebs from your existing agency contract does not necessarily mean you should toss that contract in the recycle bin.  Rather, your fall cleaning should be a time to review the quality of the work performed, and seriously assess if it’s time to clean house or simply polish and add shine to what may be a dulled relationship.


There are many directions we can go on the topic of agency search but with the “search season” upon us we feel there's more value in looking within before embarking on a time-consuming agency search.


Indeed, one of the most important steps we include in our preliminary search process is reviewing the existing relationship between a client and its current or most recent agency. Too often the underlying reasons the relationship has soured can be attributed to lack of direction, inattentiveness on the part of the client contact, staff changes (on either side), a misstated scope of work, or unanticipated projects that took the agency off-course. Another unfortunate cause we’ve observed is that the budget was never where it needed to be from the get-go and the hours burned were never enough to achieve the required outcome.  In other words, like a personal relationship, there’s usually blame on both sides!  


Our approach has always been to advise our clients not to abandon ship too quickly. Why lose valuable momentum and an established knowledge base on a new search when it may be better to repair or reengineer an existing agency relationship? While it may require an uncomfortable meeting, you're in the driver's seat and should be able to grab your agency's attention and achieve an outcome best for both parties.


The best agency relationships mature into partnerships with mutually beneficial results. However, any marriage requires work from both sides and shouldn't be abandoned simply because of a few cobwebs or some dust. 

- Robert Udowitz