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Tips for negotiating the agency RFP

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I hate to admit how many agency RFP initiatives I've been through, but let's just say that close to 20 years of doing what I do allows me to offer a point of view.  

I've approached this process from both the agency side and from the client side, making mistakes and, of course, learning along the way. However, while I don't have the perfect template to offer, I do have some practical advice about finding the right agency partner and fit. I would say much of this can depend on setting the right expectations upfront, but there are a few other things to consider as well:

  • If it's not in their core expertise, it typically isn't a good idea.

There are exceptions to every rule, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with an agency for a specific project and halfway through the work they mention that, “Oh, by the way” ... and then they offer additional services, like social media.

It can make sense to go with a one-stop-shop agency, but not in all cases. Be careful and check their references regarding the new service they're pitching. Just because you went through the formal RFP process and chose an agency for a particular program, that doesn't mean you shouldn’t be diligent about staying on top of references for additional services.

  • Ask about lost opportunities.

During the RFP process, ask the agency candidates to provide references of people in companies they pitched, but then didn't win the assignment. I've found that this one question can separate a good agency from a great agency. 

Some agencies won't respond to this question for "legal" reasons, but I’ve found that those that do offer up this information are much more collaborative and easier to work with. We are able to have very candid conversations, and the work just flows better. This one question can also help to sort out unnecessary ego.

  • Are you a good client?

Honestly, a good agency relationship is one in which both parties do their part. Before you embark on a relationship with a new agency, ask yourself a few things, such as: Are your expectations in line with your budget? Are you clear in your strategy? Is your timeline realistic?  Are you committed to providing constructive feedback in a timely manner during the course of a program or campaign?

A good relationship involves strong effort from all parties. It's very easy for a client to say that an agency didn't deliver, but before you make that bold, sweeping statement be honest and ask yourself if you set the right expectations. Don’t let things unravel along the way; much of the relationship's success depends on you.

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