Finding the best agency starts with a well-written RFI

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Two decades into my work managing agency searches, and nearly that much time into the world's online dating era, some parallels are becoming clear.

The whole point of online dating is to find someone who fits what you're looking for—without wasting too much time. The same applies in a business search.

There are too many agencies, just like there are too many people, to let bad info or the wrong questions slow everything down. For brands, that means you need to get your request for information right.

RFI Writing Rule #1: Share.

This isn't a one-way street. Offer information about the brand, marketing issues, short and long-term goals, the budget, review rationale and more. Don't hold back and don't hide the real issues. Let the prospective agency partner learn about the brand and about the marketing team they will be working with on the account.

Similar to the online dating profile, you want to help someone get a sense of who you really are, and it's the little things that count. The key is to add details. The same applies in the RFI. The more details the better. Make the brand and, more importantly, issues and desires of the marketing team come alive in the written request. For example, list a handful of brands that you aspire your brand to be but detailing the rationale behind why you admire those brands is vital. When I managed a review for El Pollo Loco, they said admired Go-Pro, Chipotle and Panera Bread not "just because" but because they all did a memorable job of defining what they stand for.

There's a big difference between saying something and showing it.

RFI Writing Rule #2: Invite them in.

When writing an online profile, it's important to break the (digital) ice by sprinkling in questions or conversation starters that might actually reveal something. When writing an RFI, it's the same: The responses are only as good as the questions being asked.

The idea is to help the agency exhibit relevant experience that's necessary to help you tackle your brand's current and just as important, future challenges. Many times we focus on the here and now, forgetting that there's significance in keeping long-term needs in mind too in order to grow together and create a long-term relationship.

Are you writing the proper questions that will allow agencies responding to highlight their pertinent experience and skills for your brand's needs? "Tell me about yourself" is a difficult question to answer, so help agencies sharpen their responses by inviting them to share relevant experiences by asking distinct questions that get to the information you want to learn.

Instead of asking whether the agency has experience with brand-building for a new product, propose that they share an example of an integrated market-by-market growth communications plan (for various market stages: established, emerging, new) while staying focused on core brand-building and maintaining short-term sales… a much richer question that will lead to deeper insights into an applicable experience.

RFI Writing Rule #3: Integrate culture.

As in personal life, compatible culture is essential to business relationships.

According to Forrester, a recent survey shows that only 23% of RFI's evaluate agency culture, but most of the top challenges in working with agencies are about culture and communication. Dig past the nuts and bolts of practical experience and start understanding the agency's reason for being, working philosophy and positioning statement, which will give some insight into the team that you would eventually be working with on a daily basis. Do you have the same work ethics? Do you view trial and error similarly? Do both companies encourage team development in similar ways? How does each of you define success?

You can be creative (but concise) in trying to get a sense of the "spirit" of the agency in order to assess compatability.

RFI Writing Rule #4: Be visual.

Dating profiles with a few select photos have a much stronger chance of being read than those without. So how does this apply to the RFI? Include some quantitative data in the form of graphics. Let the prospective agency "see" what's going on under the hood and allow them to either be attracted to the marketing problems or not. Including descriptive demographic and psychographic visual personas are not only appealing but helpful in assessing whether they want to help solve your marketing issues.

Once you've assembled an effective, comprehensive RFI, proper agencies' participation still depends on everything from their availability to their level of interest to conflict issues. And just as important, clients must judge agencies' work submitted with an open mind—understanding that you might not agree with another client's directions, for example. But having the right RFI in the first place fuels the agency self-selection—and self-elimination—that gets brands off to the right start.

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