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How to Write RFPs to Get the Results You Want

How should you write a Request For Proposal (or RFP) that results in a successful agency partnership and a great project?

Well, our short answer might surprise you: you don’t.

But read on—there is helpful information within regardless of your situation.

There are a lot of reasons RFPs aren’t a great idea (read about it here and here and especially here), but the simple one is this: the standard RFP process is not the best or most efficient way of selecting the right partner for a project.

We typically don’t respond to RFPs because the process rarely produces a good long-term partnership. As the premier digital agency for marketing to seniors and boomers, we’ve seen our fair share of RFPs. But we highly value finding the right fit, and forming relationships that are mutually beneficial. That means we are serving the client well (within our areas of expertise), and the client feels like they have a true partner.

Why RFPs Don’t Yield Good Partnerships

The RFP process doesn’t naturally lend itself to uncovering all of the information that is helpful in making a good decision. As a result, the decisions that are made are usually on the basis of:

  • Price (never the primary criteria for making a decision where the outcome is really important), or
  • How good an agency is at pitching (usually a poor measure of how the actual project and relationship will go)


I do realize that some projects and companies require an RFP process. If you’re in government, you might be required to do an RFP. But I’m guessing that the majority of the time this process hasn’t yielded what you’ve hoped it would.

If you’re truly locked into this archaic process, this article will not be a panacea for you—but you can use it to make your RFPs better. If you have even some control or influence over how partner agencies are chosen, definitely read on.

5 Things to Do Instead of an RFP

RFPs are often desired because there is a structure in place that makes the brass comfortable that decisions will be made wisely (although it really should worry them). Here are some things we would recommend you do to replace the typical RFP process:

1. Do your research first

“We’re sending this RFP to 12 agencies, but we really like your agency.”

“I’m asking 11 other girls to prom, but I really want to pick you—if you can convince me I should take you. What will you give me that the other girls won’t?”

Way to make a girl feel special! Not the best way to start any relationship.

RFPs are a lot of work—for the agencies and for you. A list this size is ridiculous (but not uncommon, if you can believe it). You’ll spend a lot of your time going through a lot of documents if you send out to a large list, and it’s really tough to objectively evaluate this many agencies at once.

Besides, the RFP process is poor at inspiring answers that help a client understand if they truly want to work with an agency (see #5 below).

So do everyone involved a favor, and do your research first.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Do you want an agency to help lead your project strategically, or just to execute your vision? (Do you need a doer or a thinker—or both?)
    • Many agencies are focused on doing awesome design and development, but may not focus on marketing strategy like others. Others will say they’re full service—but in reality, most “full-service” agencies are really awesome at a few things, and just average at others. That might be totally fine—it’s up to you to determine what’s important.
  • Do you value an agency that’s focused on a specific channel or industry, or on reaching a specific consumer?
    • Niche agencies bring unique insights, which can provide you with an edge in your market. On the flip side, they can be more expensive than generalist agencies.
  • Do you need your agency to provide constant project updates, or be more focused on doing the work?
    • More management usually means a higher price, but that does not mean it’s necessary for every project. What is the amount of reporting and account contact you need to feel comfortable?

Check out their website. Do you like their portfolio of work? Do their previous clients look similar to you? Do they seem forward thinking (check their blog)?

Use these criteria to think about the agencies with which you’d like to work, and then narrow that list to 3-4.

2. Focus on desired outcome(s)

What’s really important to your project? Not just really—I mean really, really.

If you can be honest about your most desired outcomes, it will benefit you in the long run—and you’ll start off the relationship with the agency you select on the right foot.

If there is a hard deadline driving the project, state that. “I promised I would get this done by a certain date” is not a hard deadline, unless the project will be considered a failure if the date is missed. Understanding the nature of deadlines is helpful, because an agency can then suggest a phased approach to help ensure time is allotted to get things right.

If you only have a certain amount to spend—share it. Most of the time we find people hold this close to the vest, because they think the agencies will overcharge. Some might—but it’s up to you to vet an agency enough to feel you can trust them.

Maybe you just want a website facelift because the CEO is tired of the old look. That might sound silly, but it’s really helpful for an agency to understand.

Once you’ve done some deep thinking about the desired outcomes, prioritize into “must haves” and “nice-to-haves.” This approach is similar to primary and secondary objectives, but would also include things like “This must be delivered by the end of the year,” or “The design must be approved by the CEO before we go to development.”

If you’re in new territory, and you’re uncomfortable setting desired outcomes or objectives, don’t worry—there’s a first time for everything. Good agencies can help take you through this process.

3. Determine how success will be measured

Think about how your success, and the project’s success, will be measured internally? Get as specific as you can, and be sure to share any “unwritten” ways in which you will be measured.

Think about that last point long and hard. To do this well, consider the stakeholders who will judge you and the project. Preferably, you’ll want to ask them what they think. But you may also need to read between the lines.

Sharing all of this information with agencies in an RFP will go a long way toward making sure you receive solutions that solve your problem. Good agencies want to help you succeed, because they understand a long-term partnership based on trust is more valuable than the quick sale.

Make sure that these are actionable objectives, too. For instance, if you’re requesting a proposal for a new website, don’t list “improve the old website” as your primary goal. What’s most important? Do you simply need a pure aesthetic update to reflect a new brand direction your company has taken? Do you want your website to capture a certain number (and type) of leads? The more you’re able to narrow down your objectives, the better an agency will be able to understand what you want and work to help you achieve it.

Consider the process of buying a car. If a person walks into a dealership and says that they’d like to buy a car, the salesperson won’t jump right into some random vehicle. The obvious next question is: “Great – what kind of car are you thinking?”

Most people go into a buying decision having already determined the answers to a list of questions. “What’s my price range? Do I want a new or used car? How many seats? Should it have a hatchback? Automatic or manual?” When they get to the dealership, they know that they want to buy a used minivan or SUV for their growing family, or a commuter car that gets good mileage (but has comfortable seats). These details help the salesperson show them options they’ll actually be interested in—which is a better use of time for everyone involved.

Good agencies will ask good questions about your project.

Taking the approach of answering questions ahead of time will help you save time when you’re talking to agencies.

Here are a few common (but important) questions to ask yourself:

  1. If your project could accomplish one goal, what would it be?
  2. What’s your budget for accomplishing your goal?
    1. Think about if you are budgeting for specific goals, or specific projects? It’s a bit of a mindshift, but one that can help your project be successful. It lets the partner agency solve the problem for you, rather than merely complete series of tasks.
  3. Is there a date by which the project must be completed?
  4. Does the project need to launch with a premium level of quality and function, or can it be a phase one, or an MVP (minimum viable product)?

4. Be realistic in setting expectations.

You’ve probably heard the old adage: “Fast, good, or cheap—pick two.”

Most RFPs don’t take this adage into account. Too often, an ideal (but unrealistic) picture will be painted, which ends up baiting agencies into making offers that will be impossible to keep.

I recently had a call with a prospect that wanted us to respond to an RFP because of our mature consumer expertise. Their project had goals that were unrealistic to accomplish within their tight timeframe and very limited budget. Guess what? It’s two months past the date they said must launch by, and the project is still not up—a common story.

These common situations are why I’d recommend you:

  • Focus on your desired outcomes
  • Be transparent about your goals (and your accompanying budget), and
  • Work on establishing a relationship built on trust.

5. The single biggest factor: Focus on finding a good fit

The best way to get to know an agency is to actually talk with them. I’d suggest asking to be exposed to team members besides the sales team. Having a sense of who you’ll work with (especially if it’s not the “A team” who gave you the pitch) will help you to determine if the agency will be a good personality fit for you. In person is always best if it makes sense for the engagement, but video conferencing can also be a great way to connect.

Other ways to determine fit:

  • Go back to what you determined your objectives were, and see if your potential partner’s capabilities align with those.
  • What are the agency’s core values? Do they align with those of your company?
    • Values may be more of a consideration for some than for others. But if some shared values are not there, your new agency could create an unwanted ripple effect when working with other partners or internal team members. The wrong fit can be poisonous to your organization. This point goes to the last question…
  • Do you like and trust the people you would work with at the agency?
    • Seriously. Life is just too short.

If you put these concepts to use, the chances are much better that you’ll end up with a great fit that can become a lasting agency partner.

And I guarantee—you won’t miss that RFP process one tiny bit.

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