Happy Brand Marketers Start With an Improved RFP Process

Five Steps for Improving the Agency Search Process

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By and large, CMOs today aren't happy. A recent study shows that a CMO's average tenure decreased from 48 months to 44 months in 2015 -- the first drop in a decade. No doubt, quick-turnaround demands from consumers for content, tight budgets, and an endless cycle of seeking new partners to cut costs are contributing to this unhappiness.

But the creative review process recently completed by McDonald's -- despite what some may think about the payment structure offered -- has me thinking hopefully about the hard work that went into the process to find the right partner and that it may spur an industry-wide trend of putting more effort into searches for the right reasons.

McDonald's is one of the biggest accounts an agency could ever hope to land, and it is loyal, having been previously tied to Leo Burnett for 35 years. With that in mind, everyone involved knew that the stakes couldn't be higher. Rather than sending an RFP far and wide, McDonald's honed in on a small group of big shops it knew could handle the volume of work it needed. Then, it initiated "chemistry sessions" to get to know the personalities and strategies behind them. The winner, Omnicom, went so far as to build out an entire floor of an office to show McDonald's what its dedicated team would look like in action. The process was an unusual one, but it shows that the road to finding a dedicated partner shouldn't take a one-size-fits-all approach.

In the past, it was normal for agencies and brand marketers to look for these long-term relationships. They may have dated around a bit, but once they found the right partner, they locked it in. This isn't just nostalgia talking -- according to the Wall Street Journal and a report by The Bedford Group, the average client-agency relationship in 1984 lasted 7.2 years. These days, it's thought to be less than three years.

The only thing that can stop this period of instability is happy brand marketers. And whether a marketer is looking for a new AOR or simply trying to find a partner who can consistently deliver good project work for a long time, in most cases, becoming a happy brand marketer starts first and foremost with approaching the RFP process differently. Following are some ways of going about that:

1. Narrow your options. It's the marketers, not the procurement department, that has to make it work with the agency. So when a procurement department sends out RFPs to 20 different agencies, they're already stacking the deck against finding the right partner. Hearing those odds, the perfect agency may not participate, because it can seem as though the brand marketer does not understand the nuanced differences between agencies and why certain ones are particularly suited for a partnership or work. The marketer should do its homework, look for the work it admires in other brands, and approach only a handful of agencies -- I believe the magic number is no more than eight -- that it thinks aligns with its goals.

2. Make the actual RFP count. Remember that it's not just the agency that needs to impress -- it has to want to work with the brand. The quality of the RFP will either excite the agency and inspire good work, or put it on guard with sloppy or unimaginative questions. The format matters, too. Marketers should take the time to give agencies a simple way of presenting their work so that they can truly see their creativity come through at the outset. Agencies should be wary of any third-party online sourcing systems. They often leave room for little to no qualitative responses.

3. Have a budget. Agencies can't help you if you don't know if you're looking for a speedboat or a yacht. Some will excel at making highly creative work on a shoestring; others are expert at handling large-scale executions. Not everyone is great at both. Giving at least a range is essential in understanding the strengths of your agency partner, and letting them know what they might be in for going forward. And if you really don't know, come back to the process when you figure it out. This is another area where marketers can learn from McDonald's -- while its situation may differ somewhat from one where a marketer would lay out a budget in advance for project work, the brand should be applauded for explicitly stating its compensation criteria upfront.

4. Set a precedent of courtesy and communication. Any good RFP lays out exactly what the client is looking for, but too often they don't communicate when and how. Set a clear schedule, letting the agencies know when they should check in, and when each stage of the process will be completed. Then, whoever wins the business can continue on a clearly understood timeframe for delivery.

5. Give the presentations time and space to sink in. For the brand, the final presentations are the result of all the hard work it did on the process (agencies aren't the only ones doing the work in this scenario). Which is why it's surprising when brands set these presentations back-to-back over the course of a couple of days, or even in the same day. Why embark on the process only to rush the results? Take your time and let the ideas sink in. Better yet, spend some time with the agency people to see what they're like when they're not in presentation mode. You'll end up making a better choice because of it.

These relatively simple tweaks to the RFP process can make a world of difference in the long run -- and I'm hopeful that our industry is now headed in this direction.

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