April 25, 2011

By Wallrich

How to Shop for an Ad Agency, Marketing Firm or Web Developer

A man decided he wanted a wood cabinet built. So he looked up ten cabinet makers and announced he would hire whoever offered him the best value.

“What type of wood?” asked one cabinet maker.
“How big?” asked another.
“Do you have a style in mind?” asked a third.

The man realized he wasn’t sure about any of these details.

“How much do your cabinets cost?” he asked them.

“Without knowing what you want, I can’t give you a true estimate,” said a cabinet maker.

“Here’s an idea,” said the man. “Each of you, build me the cabinet you imagine will please me most.”

“That’s a lot of work. How do we know you’ll even buy one?” asked a cabinet maker.

“I won’t buy any of them. That’s just for the selection process. After I pick my favorite, we can sit down and figure out details for the real cabinet, and you can build it for me—as long as the price is right,” said the man.

Of course, cabinet builders don’t work like that. But marketing agencies do. It’s like the Electoral College. It doesn’t make a lot of sense today, but for whatever arcane historical reason, it’s become the standard. It’s something we agency folks grumble about, because no one likes working for free—especially in times like these. But of course, a bad RFP doesn’t just waste agency resources. An issuing organization spends a lot of time writing the RFP, reviewing responses, attending pitches and so on. All too often, at the end of the whole exercise, the issuers realize too many open questions and variables make it awfully hard to judge the best solution.

Starting over pleases no one. Leaps of faith are scary. Don’t accept either outcome. Proceed thoughtfully and deliberately. If the shoe were on the other foot, here’s how we’d conduct an RFP that would minimize waste and maximize the chance of a successful partnership.

Practical Tips for Successful RFPs

  • Limit the number of agencies you invite. Picking from five is easier than 10, and you won’t get responses from qualified agencies who think it’s just a lottery.
  • Specify a budget and ask agencies to propose the most effective ways to use it. If you don’t know your budget, or your scope, make an educated guess and nail one of them down. Otherwise you’ll have no way to compare proposals objectively.
  • Be clear about which capabilities are mission critical and which are merely extras. Focus your inquiry on the most relevant services.
  • Decide which capabilities you require of agency staff, and which may be acceptably outsourced. Agencies that rely heavily on subcontractors sacrifice control over a project and can expose you to a higher degree of risk. Besides, there’s a reason “outsourcing” has become a dirty word. There’s value in supporting your own local economy.
  • You’re looking for examples of projects comparable to yours in audience, purpose or format. But don’t dismiss examples that aren’t perfect matches on all three counts. Most agencies can scale accordingly.
  • The scope of the contract should reflect the time it takes to craft a thoughtful proposal. If it’s a fairly small contract, don’t ask for the sun, moon and stars (i.e., spec strategy, fully developed creative campaigns, technical guidance and a lap dance). An agency that invests 50 hours to win a $10,000 contract is either hasty or desperate. You do want a sensible agency, don’t you?
  • Before you request seven bound copies, do give the environment brief consideration. These proposals can get pretty thick. A PDF with one hard copy should suffice for most submissions.


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