Running a client-side RFP process for the first time can be a daunting task.

  • How do you ask the right questions and unlock the right answers from prospective agencies?
  • How do you manage your time so it’s not swallowed up by several people asking for the same information?
  • How do you ensure your scoring isn’t biased?
  • How do I make sure I end up with the right agency partner?

In this article I’ll answer these key questions, but first let me set the scene…

I’m a client-side digital marketer, leading performance marketing for a European ecommerce site with over 150k SKUs over 19 markets.

Earlier this year our search marketing presence was at a crossroads. We were working with our 2nd media agency in less than a year, and it was clear to me (having started my career at a search agency) the agency fee I’d inherited from my former boss wasn’t enough to allow the incumbent agency to show what they were truly capable of.

So what did we do?

We looked at our options and concluded that designing a full RFP process would be the best way to ensure we asked the right questions and got the right answers.

But where do you start when designing an RFP process?

We identified 8 key steps that led to a successful process for us:

  • Tell the agencies who YOU are
  • Check for chemistry
  • Be clear on your goals, scope, budget and KPIs
  • Ask the right questions based on what you need
  • Be transparent with your decision criteria and how you’re scoring the RFP
  • Be transparent about the process itself
  • Deal with questions fairly and effectively
  • Be a good human and feed back honestly after the process

1. Tell the agencies who YOU are

Disclaimer: this may sound obvious.

This is YOUR process so let prospective agencies know about YOU.

This part of your RFP document should be filled with information agencies wouldn’t be able to find out about your business from your website (or wikipedia).

It’s also your chance to start laying the foundations for your cultural fit by telling your prospective partner about the personality of your team and your values.

You want to get the agency excited about working with you – agencies spend significant time and resource preparing for pitch situations so you’ll want to sell the good ones on why they should want to work with you.

2. Check for chemistry

Cultural fit and chemistry often get overlooked in these processes, but knowing the personality of your team or business will help you find partners you can trust and get along with.

Innocent Drinks have “The Van Test” as their criteria when hiring. Could you spend 3 hours in a van with this person? Apply this to your agency partners to see whether they pass.

If your incumbent agency is good but being restricted by their fee, it may be worth inviting them to be part of your RFP process and re-pitch –but if the cultural fit, chemistry or trust isn’t there, there’s little point wasting their time by inviting them into an un-winnable situation.

3. Be clear on your goals, scope, budget and KPIs

Your RFP process should clearly define your strategy, goals and KPIs.

As a golden rule, if you can’t be specific about how you’re measuring success, you shouldn’t be engaging with an agency yet. After all, if you can’t paint the picture of what success looks like, how can an agency know what you need or if they can do a good job for you?

It’s really important to be clear about the scope of work you expect – and (in the case of paid media) about your expected spend for the length of the contract. Clearly define your competitors and seasonality at this stage.

Savvy agencies will be conscious about the risk of “scope creep” from poorly defined briefs, and most will operate a “bid/no bid” policy where they’re selective about what work they pitch for.

Giving them the right information to make these decisions early will help ensure you don’t waste your time (or theirs) and avoid agencies dropping out mid-process once they discover they don’t really want to work with you.

Criteria Weighting

Technical ability

Experience in inventory management via DoubleClick, feeds and automated approaches.

30%

Language capabilities

A thorough process that will enable regular keyword management and localisation of copy for all languages/markets.

20%

Strategic approach/data driven

Strategic approach and the correct use of data to lead digital plans and respond to challenges within the business.

15%

Experience of large, international retail clients

Scalability knowledge and experience as well as potential to manage other paid media.

15%

Cultural fit/ways of working

Team setup/structure, day-to-day communication, knowledgeable account management team, SLAs and company culture.

10%

Creativity

Creative problem-solving, idea generation and reacting to new trends and features to develop PPC and Shopping to an award-winning standard.

10%
Points Criteria
5 Fully meets
4 Meets with minor gaps (no compromise required)
3 Meets with moderate gaps (some compromise required)
2 Partially meets (significant gaps, compromise required)
1 Does not meet

4. Ask the right questions based on what you need

If you’ve done steps 1 and 2, you should have clearly defined who you are, what your goals are and how success should be measured for the pitch and beyond.

The next challenge is to design questions that allow agencies to give answers demonstrating the desired skills or values.

So how do you do this?

The trick here is to ask open questions.

Remember there’s a balance to strike. If you’re too specific, the answer may not touch on all the areas you’re interested in, but if your question is too generic, you risk getting a stock answer. Either way you’re not giving the agency a chance to show their expertise.

But what does an open question look like? Here’s an example.

When covering onboarding and project management, rather than asking:

“What’s your approach to onboarding and project management?”

Ask:

“What would the first 90 days of working with you look like? How do you prioritise and what’s your approach to managing large projects? How do you make sure BAU activity continues during big-ticket projects? Describe your ways of working and how teams collaborate for the benefit of the client.”

5. Be transparent with your decision criteria and how you’re scoring the RFP

Here’s the scoring process we recommend – it worked well for us:

  • Give a brief description to ensure there are no misunderstandings about your criteria.
  • Pick the 5 or 6 most important things you need from your agency and give them a weighting so the total is 100%.
  • Score the entries using a points-based system of 1-5, with 5 points awarded for an answer fully meeting your criteria and expectations, and 1 point awarded for answering but not meeting the criteria.
  • If you’re scoring as a panel, avoid unconscious bias by asking all your panel members to review and score each entry (in writing) individually before you discuss them as a group.
  • In the group discussion, agree on a collective score, taking into account each panel member’s individual scores. This encourages healthy debate about your team’s perspectives on the answers.
  • Use a spreadsheet (feel free to make your own copy of this Google Sheet) to score each agency on your criteria, ending up with a total score out of 500.

6. Be transparent about the process itself

Running an RFP process can be time-consuming for both client and agency. Waste as little time time as possible by being crystal clear in your RFP document about these key details:

  • The stages of the process
    • Let the agencies know what happens next (e.g. written proposal followed by face-to-face pitch from finalists)
  • The decision-makers (including job title)
    • This allows the agency to prepare the right level of detail for stakeholders with different needs. The needs of a finance director are different to those of a marketing director.
  • The schedule
    • Be generous with your timings. It takes time to pull together the level of information you’ll be looking for, so be considerate of this. (See example below.)
  • The decision criteria and scoring
    • (See point 2.)
Date Milestone
29 January RFP sent to shortlisted agencies
1 February Deadline to RSVP invitation (1pm GMT)
6-14 February Conference calls/meetings with potential partners to discuss project
26 February Deadline for partner proposals (1pm GMT)
2 March Selection of finalists
19-20 March Finalist presentations
23 March Final partner selected
16 April Project start date (tentative)

7. Deal with questions fairly and effectively

For clients, fielding questions from pitching agencies can be draining. Especially when you find yourself answering the same questions from all parties.

One approach is to anonymously share all questions asked and your answers so all parties have the same information, but I fundamentally disagree with this. Why should an agency benefit if they weren’t smart enough to ask the original question?

So what did we do?

To create a fair and lean alternative, we set up a discovery session (a call or meeting of 1 hour) for each agency involved in the pitch process.

Any questions about the pitch or project were limited to these discovery sessions, and we didn’t allow any communication outside these sessions.

It worked really well – it allowed the agency to show their expertise in trying to better understand our business and it also gave us an initial idea of chemistry.

Plus it meant little wasted time for us responding to or collating responses.

Discovery sessions were booked on a first come, first served basis using Doodle.com. The agency was assigned a name (Agency 1, Agency 2, etc.) and asked to pick their own slot from a predefined list.

8. Be a good human and feed back honestly after the process

Agencies incur a cost when they pitch. If they don’t win, they get no return on the time and resource they invest in replying to your RFP.

So the least they deserve is honest and constructive feedback about where they fell short.

Using your scoring criteria, you should know how they scored on each key thing you were looking for, so let them know why they didn’t meet the standard. Good agencies will want to know this so they can improve their pitchcraft (is that a word?!) and do better next time they pitch. It also helps maintain relationships if for some reason you go out to pitch again in the future.

By following this process, you should give yourself the best possible chance of finding the right agency match for you while minimising the impact on your time and that of your prospective partners.

Good luck!

Econsultancy’s RFP templates