By Huong Cao

Many agencies think of the RFP (Request for Proposal) process for a PR agency as a day-to-day struggle with little return on their investment of time and effort. Likewise, client organizations dread the process not only because of the great amount of time and effort it takes to put together an RFP, but because it typically does little to help them identify the best firm for their organization.

With a strong understanding of the common worries about the RFP process across the industry, Robert Udowitz, left in photo, and Steve Drake, right in photo, who founded a communications agency search firm RFP Associates in 2011, led the workshop “Best Strategies for RFP Success: Choosing Winning Agencies & Winning More Business,” hosted by National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America on March 15. The workshop was packed with many public relations professionals who represented both agency and client organizations, and who hoped to leave the session with an understanding of how an RFP process can and should be beneficial.

Challenges in the RFP process to agencies: navigating scope of work and not knowing a budget

When Drake kicked off the workshop by asking communication professionals working for agencies what about the RFP process made them anxious, a few professionals shared their thoughts on the challenges in navigating client expectations on scope of work. To some attendees, an RFP is often confusing for clients who provide a scope of work that is too vague and are “reluctant to provide more information” or not sure about what they want or prioritize.

Additionally, an attendee in the workshop addressed the need to see a budget in an RFP, which “drives agencies crazy,” according to Udowitz. “It is an error,” he said, to not include the budget in an RFP because it doesn’t allow agencies to price their services based on what the client has to spend. He said it was also an “unnecessary guessing game” because the resources for a $100k budget are vastly different than those of one for $250k or even $500k. Drake also emphasized that the RFP process should not be about the lowest bidder, but more about the intelligence of the responses agencies make in their proposals and long-term partnerships.

Complaints from client organizations

Beside challenges in the RFP process faced by agencies, the two speakers shared that it is hard for client organizations to differentiate between agencies to choose the best one, especially with the wide array of agencies in today’s marketplace. One common complaint from the client side, according to Drake, is the perception of “bait and switch,” which happens when an agency brings in senior representatives to “charm the prospect” but primarily ends up sending in junior staffers after the contract is signed. The remedy, he said, is to include the real team that would be working on the account. Clients understand the staffing process and will appreciate the transparency.

Also, another complaint from the client side, according to Drake, is to receive “a boilerplate response” from agencies. He referred to the first concern of clients which was the difficulty in distinguishing agencies when all of them said they were the world’s greatest social media managers or could do everything for a client. Then Udowitz told the audience: “Like writing a cover letter for a job, agency professionals need to personalize and tailor every detail in their proposal responses if you want a higher win rate.”

While the RFP process presents both parties with tough challenges, “if clients give the RFP process the time, which is usually about three months, they can choose the right agency to work with,” according to Udowitz. But, specifically, how to identify the right agency or make the RFP process easier for client organizations? Udowitz and Drake laid out important steps that client organizations could apply.

Using an RFQ (A Request for Qualifications) to narrow down the number of candidate agencies to six or seven

According to the two speakers, what often happens is a client easily feels overwhelmed with more than six or seven candidates. To save time for both sides, using an RFQ helps clients evaluate qualifications of agency candidates before sending them the RFP. According to Udowitz, an RFQ is a shorter, survey-like document that asks recipient agencies to succinctly document their experience in a certain sector, for a particular issue, and/or with particular strategies or tactics (e.g. social media campaigns, special events, media relations, etc.).  “It can also reveal if the agency has any conflicts of interest,” he added.

Using a signed NDA (non-disclosure agreement)

Drake and Udowitz emphasized the benefits of having an NDA, which “protects and defends both sides in the RFP process.” In other words, an NDA protects the information that client organizations share with agencies during the RFP process and also protects the ideas that agencies propose to a potential client throughout the RFP process.

Conducting reference calls

According to Udowitz, contacting former clients of agencies or journalists (if relevant) is essential. By doing this, client organizations may uncover information that can be helpful to the decision-making process, such as whether an agency practices good media relations, was responsive when a previous client had problems with agency team members, and the like.

Having a dedicated evaluation team

Drake stressed the importance of appointing an engaged evaluation team – “whose members will be asked to read each proposal and attend finalist presentations.” He added that each member of the evaluation team should be supplied with a scorecard.

In addition to helpful suggestions for client organizations, Drake and Udowitz covered tips to help agencies increase their RFP win rates.

“The devil is in the details”

According to Drake, “the boring stuff is as important as the creative stuff.” To him that includes the basic details and answers that clients need to see even if they are not in the RFP, such as how their billing and contracting works, or the day to day roles and reporting relationships of proposed agency team members. reporting and other processes.

Taking the presentation to the next level

Udowitz and Drake emphasized that finalist presentations should never be “the musical, song and dance version of the proposal.” A good presentation does not repeat what is already in the proposal but, instead, takes it to the next level. In order to take an RFP process to the next level, “no detail is too small,” according to two speakers, who suggested researching a client in advance to see if there is anything that has happened in the past 24 hours before the presentation, as well as preparing to deal with any unexpected question that could arise during the presentation.

Effective format of responses to RFP

When asked by an attendee about which format was the most effective to display a response to the RFP, Udowitz emphasized that “readability is key.” Also, while eye-catching graphic design can be effective, agencies should ask themselves if the client is able to download the file. He also suggested to agencies to provide copies of their presentations immediately so that clients can go back and review. He marveled at how often he’d seen that overlooked and after an agency leaves there’s no way to go back and review their presentation.

With an interactive discussion and helpful suggestions from two RFP Associates, the workshop proved to provide attendees from both parties with a better understanding of challenges in the RFP process and its best practices.

Huong Cao is a George Mason University Undergraduate Teaching Assistant

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