As a 20-year CorpComm veteran, I’ve issued my share of RFPs. As an agency leader I’ve responded to them. And, now as CEO of CommunicationsMatch™, which powers PRSA’s Find a Firm agency search and hiring tools, I see a real opportunity for companies and agencies to implement best practices and technology to fix a broken process.
If Edelman’s Trust Barometer had a category for trust in RFPs – for the agency community, they’d likely come in dead last.
This matters. If agencies refuse to participate in RFPs, and many say they have chosen not to, when a company is required to issue an RFP it may not have access to the best and most creative firms with capabilities that match their needs.
I’m sympathetic to the apocryphal stories of RFPs being issued by companies just because their purchasing department told them to, despite being happy with their current agency. Although in my two-decade long career as a client at Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank and Prudential Financial, I never saw this happen. Most client-side communicators are far too busy to waste time on agency searches on a “road to nowhere.”
That said, most agencies have experienced a cattle call, when RFPs are sent out to many PR firms with limited due diligence. They may have spent a lot of otherwise billable hours, shared ideas and drafted presentations, only to find an incumbent agency or the agency of a friend of the head of communications or CEO randomly emerge as the winners.
It’s no surprise that after a few rounds of this, agency leaders throw in the towel and give up on the process entirely. If it’s not going to be a fair fight, why bother?
How can companies, corporate communicators, and agencies, change this dynamic?
In the same way clients need to issue RFPs the right way, agencies need to have the discipline to “pitch for what you are qualified or qualify yourself for what you pitch.” A “Hail Mary” RFP response, when you know you are not a good fit, is a waste of time.
For clients, a thorough search process offers a path to finding and hiring the best agencies. Underscoring this, research we conducted with Researchscape and RFP Associates, shows a direct connection between RFPs, PR program outcomes, and agency longevity.
To get qualified agencies to participate in RFP processes both now and in the future, requires a commitment to best practices, including:
This may be obvious to those who have been through multiple search processes. But, given the relative infrequency of hiring new agencies, corporate communications teams may have limited experience with selecting and bringing on board new agencies.
To support clients as they search, the Agency Select™ RFQ/RFP tools we developed with our partner, RFP Associates, and incorporated into CommunicationsMatch™, are designed around these best practices.
Watch this short video on How to use Agency Select.
Clients search online for agencies by industry and communications expertise then review profiles to find firms that are a good fit for an assignment, before sending an RFQ through the platform. RFQs are quick for an agency to review to determine if they are a good fit or have a conflict of interest, see the budget, and are easy to complete.
Once a client has created a shortlist from RFQ responses, the RFP process is designed to be comprehensive as well as time efficient for the agency and the client. When a response (proposal) to the RFP is submitted, the client can review responses side-by-side to make decisions on final interview candidates.
In addition to client organizations using PRSA Find a Firm and CommunicationsMatch to send RFPs, we use these tools when we are engaged to conduct searches for companies looking to hire agencies across the country.
The RFP process needs to shift from an often random beauty parade to a disciplined, efficient, and transparent due-diligence process where agencies are selected with intent.
Respecting agencies’ time with an efficient and effective process, that gives clients the information they need to evaluate and choose firms they want to work with, strikes a reasonable balance between both parties in the agency hiring process. When the risks and rewards make sense for agencies, clients ensure that the best firms for their business are willing to participate.
In other words, it’s a win-win.
Simon Erskine Locke is founder & CEO of communications agency and professional search and services platform, CommunicationsMatch™, which powers PRSA’s Find a Firm agency search tools. CommunicationsMatch developed Agency Select™, the industry’s first integrated agency search and RFP tools, in partnership with RFP Associates. CommunicationsMatch is also a partner of communications research firm Researchscape.