For all of my fellow agency stalwarts, the RFP process has become the biggest running joke of the industry. There’s no bigger waste of agency resources than putting perfectly competent agency strategists to the task of responding to one of these preposterous documents – that is if your even lucky it shows up as a document. Its time we finally killed off this laborious and time-sucking process once and for all.
You know the scenario: Lets say you work as a strategist at one of the top 5 search engine marketing agencies, or web dev agencies. You get an email from some marketing manager at, lets say, Union Carbide, requesting a response to their RFP for a new Paid Media agency. Then the trip to hell begins. First of all, I dont remember the last time I read an RFP document that actually made any sense. Vague, undefined goals, no real understanding of how agency services are delivered or managed, preposterous assumptions, and no room for any possibility of communicating your agency differentiation are common place. And any attempt to get the Marketing Manager (lets call her Jennifer) on the phone to decipher the codec is thwarted and used against you in any future discussions (you can almost see the criteria spreadsheet Jennifer has open on her desktop – with categories for “cooperation” ,”attitude”).
So, what is really going on here? RFPs are a ruse. Designed by frightened bureaucrats, and nutless marketing execs, RFPS are a satanic tool designed to set a group of highly trained agency professionals off on a fruitless quest to compete with one another to ultimately help them figure out, define and solve their marketing strategy so they can just pick the agency that has the personal relationship with their CEO. When you think of the sheer dollar value of the information that these guys end up with after 3 months of detailed RFP responses and PowerPoint presentations, its no wonder these guys continue this process. Its the cheapest way to get the best counsel. And nobody wins. Union Carbide ultimately selects the agency that is likely least qualified (lets face it, they were picked long before the RFP was ever written) and all five agencies end up with a group of spent, pissed and dejected service people who wonder why they were just abused like that for 3 months.
Its time we take charge and end this ridiculous time and resource wasting ritual.
Over the last few years, the process of hiring an interactive marketing agency has become an ever more complex and confusing enterprise. As the web matures, and more players enter the field, it is becoming more and more difficult to assess an agencies qualifications without getting overwhelmed by a barrage of market-speak, techno mumbo-jumbo and seemingly identical sales pitches. Emerging technologies, new service applications, new tracking and measurement platforms, the development of “social media” and easier access to information have all contributed to a cacophonous barrage of niche offerings and start up players all vying to win your project – promising incredible returns and ROI.
So, what should you look for in the interactive agency? Think of this process as of selecting a doctor.
1) Where to start your agency search? Don’t star looking from scratch unless you have no other choices. Search engines can be a good start to pull out the initial list, but extensive research will be needed down the road. While search engines can perform miracles at hunting down agencies that specialize in this or that marketing service, the Google bar is not the most discriminating tool to use – particularly when you are looking for a company that will essentially be tied to your business for at best a year. After all, while some do, it’s probably not a good idea to look for a spouse via a Google search. In fact, keeping in line with that analogy, the most reliable way to meet a spouse is through friends and family – or in this case – people you trust. Ask around. Get feedback from other business owners about the agencies they use. Look at your competitors who are kicking your ass and see what agencies are helping them. Scrutinize.
2) Let Agency Diagnose Your Needs. Don’t assume you know what it is that you need a marketing agency for. I know this one seems strange. I mean, after all, if you didn’t know what you needed an agency for, why the hell would you be hiring one? Here’s the rub: A good marketing agency SHOULD challenge your diagnosis. Think of a Doctor. You are having stomach pains so you go to a Doctor that specializes in stomach ailments. He sees that you have a dietary issue and sends you to a nutritionist. But you were SURE you needed a stomach specialist. Here’s the second rub: in the case of the Doctor, most people take the Doctors advice (as they should) and go to the nutritionist. But this is not the case with companies hiring agencies. When an agency re-diagnoses your problem, clients don’t listen and assume that they know what ails them. Don’t be too sure. Experienced marketing agencies usually know what they are talking about. Nothing wrong with a second opinion but don’t dismiss a contrarian viewpoint out of hand. You may be sending your best business advocate packing.
3)Make Sure You Don’t Get Sold on Stuff you Don’t Really Need. If you’re not confused yet, this one will be sure to get you perplexed. If an agency DOES re-diagnose your problem, make sure that they are not just trying to retrofit your problem into their solution. What do I mean? Well, simply put, there are a lot of new and niche marketing agencies out there that are built around a specific technology or application. The challenge that these agencies have is that all of their clients are required to need that particular application in order for the agency to get hired. Taking the same Doctor analogy – if you go to back pain Doctor, and he is looking to grow his patient roster, its likely that he may simply FIND you a back problem so his solution will be applicable. So, be wary of agencies who tout their value proposition around one application or key piece of technology. That’s a vendor, not an agency. And vendors play an important role in the interactive marketing ecosystem, but they are not consultants that solve problems. They are usually solutions looking to create a problem that they can be used for.
4) Meet The Parents. When meeting with an agency, meet with the principals of the company. Not just the project managers. Ask them the following: Do you use third party agencies to execute any of your projects? If so, who are they and can we meet them too? Under what circumstances do you use these third party partners? Do you foresee the need to use any of these partners for our project?
5) Ask For The Numbers. Ask the agency to show you at least 3 case studies and explicitly demonstrate what they did for the client and what results your program produced. Look for hard metrics and make sure that the results that were produced were in line with the desired results originally requested by the client.
6) Check Out The Client Retention. Find out how long they retain their clients. Happy clients don’t leave, so a good agency should be able to retain their customers for 2-5 years. If not, ask them why this is the case.
7) Listen to the type of questions that they ask you. Are they tactical questions, or are they asking strategic questions? The difference is that tactical questions tend to focus on specific product or service offerings, and strategic questions are more related to your business goals and business objectives. Agencies that ask a lot of tactical questions tend to lack the depth of marketing know-how and will eventually run out of steam when it comes time to innovate or build your business beyond the suite of products or services that they offer. Stay away from these vendors as they tend to diminish in value in the short run.
8) Check Out Their Client List. What type of clients do they currently serve? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you are in the Hospitality business that you need to hire an agency that has a lot of hospitality experience. More importantly, look at how the agency solves problems for their clients. A more diverse and varied roster of verticals is actually better for you as agencies gain a more varied insight and tool set to handle issues and create opportunities. Ones that work in predominantly one vertical tend to be limited in how they approach problems.
9) Ask For References. Ask The Right Questions. Talk to their current and past clients directly. Get the word from the horse’s mouth. This is an invaluable step. Ask the clients what their experience was on a day to day or week to week basis. How responsive were they to your needs? How was the relationship? Did they seem to understand your problem? Did they provide insights and new ideas? Would you hire them again? Would you recommend them?
10) Visit their office. This is critical as the physical space that the agency works in tells a great deal about them. Look at how many people are in the office – get a feel for the culture and general attitude of the environment. Sometimes you want to hire this agency because they have that amazing designer or a talented writer on their team. Introduce yourself to the service people, ask them questions. They will be working for you soon.
11)Don’t Expect Agency To Solve All Your Problems. Asking an agency to do all of the heavy lifting when they are developing a proposal or a recommended solution is not the right way to go. Provide the agency with all of the information that they ask for. They are asking for it for a reason. A lot of clients put potential agencies through their paces by making the proposal development phase an evaluation process in itself – “lets see how these guys figure out THIS one!…”. Crapola. An agency relies on data to determine a lot of the metrics and results that they are going to produce. The more you support the agency to gain knowledge about your business the better their proposed solution will be. Would you intentionally deny your Doctor information if he was checking you for heart disease? I think not.