Improving the RFP: Better Questions Yield Better Results

Unfortunately, Many Marketers Make a Poor First Impression on Agencies

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"Come here often?"

"What's your sign?"

"Can I have your number because I seemed to have lost mine?"

Chris Shumaker
Chris Shumaker

Ridiculously bad, right? We'd snicker and turn away if we ever found ourselves on the receiving end of one of one these horrendous pick-up lines. But sadly, the "opening lines" being used today in client request-for-information and request-for-proposal documents aren't much better, and it can be a major turnoff for discerning agencies.

It's been said before and it's true: the dating ritual is analogous to the agency-selection process. Clients and agencies are looking to find their perfect match, their "soul mate," if you will.

But much too often these days -- especially in a procurement-driven sourcing process for agencies--a typical opening line is the RFI or the RFP itself. This becomes the first impression clients make on potential agency partners. And as we all know, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression.

Unfortunately, many of the questions asked of agencies in a procurement-driven request for information reflect poorly on the client's understanding of the agency business. Worse yet, some questions imply the client doesn't even know what they are doing.

To illustrate my point, here are a few examples drawn from actual procurement-led RFI's issued to advertising agencies.

"What is the content development cost of still photography?" (What does that even mean?) "Do you import raw materials from Sudan?" (Do you even know what business we're in? Hello?! This is an RFI for professional services!) "What are the dates of birth and nationalities of the officers of your company?" (And this will help in selecting an agency partner bee-cause...?) "Which of the following would you like to bid on: (1) banner ads, (2) traditional advertising, (3) creative, (4) email marketing." (Really? "Creative" is a separate item to bid on?)

Remember, marketers: the very best agencies are just as selective as clients, if not more so. We're looking for our soul mate, too.

Agencies recognize the importance of proper chemistry and work hard to discern and qualify each opportunity. And given that , shops are choosy about which new business opportunities will get their time and resources.

So, when the first impression is an RFI/RFP with questions similar to the above, agencies become wary of the source. We tend to react the same way you would to a bad pick-up line - "forget it!"

It'd be a shame if simply due to ill-informed question-asking, clients would lose the opportunity to work with a better agency and the agency may have inadvertently lost the opportunity to work with a great client.

To avoid the consequences of a bad "'opening line" and to achieve the best chances of identifying highly qualified candidate agencies, here are a five suggestions:

  1. Don't allow the RFI/RFP itself to be the first impression. Contact the agency first and set up a call to discuss the process and opportunity.
  2. Eliminate all questions that don't pertain to a communications agency. This about engaging a professional services firm, not buying raw materials, so make sure the questions are properly phrased.
  3. Consider pre-screening the questions with an agency contact, the 4A's or the ANA Procurement Mentoring Program to make sure proper terminology and phrasing are being used while avoiding red-flag statements and questions.
  4. Save pricing questions for later in the process. At this first stage in the process, send the message that you're interested in quality and fit, not just price. There will be plenty of time to discuss compensation with the agency finalists.
  5. Apply the 4As / ANA Agency Search Guidelines. These two organizations spent a great deal of time crafting a very thorough agency review process and questionnaire. Refer to the ANA/4A's Guidelines for Agency Search to obtain copies. Use them! You will like the time saving and quality results.

Selecting the right partner is critically important to both the client and the agency. A well thought-out sourcing and review process, from a positive first impression all the way to the final selection, can be enormously helpful in creating and preserving more "soul mate" relationships in our industry.

Chris Shumaker is exec VP-USA Chief Marketing Officer at Publicis Worldwide, and has been a dedicated new business strategist for the last 17 years.

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