RFPs Are a Waste of Precious Time. Here’s a Better Way to Hire an Agency.

When an agency’s first interaction with a client involves working for free and spending weeks or months groveling to win the account, things are already getting off on the wrong foot.

Written by David Burn
Published on Sep. 08, 2021
RFPs Are a Waste of Precious Time. Here’s a Better Way to Hire an Agency.
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There’s a wealth of highly specialized marketing talent available to brands today, but few brand managers know exactly where to look to find a good fit for their most pressing needs. 

Sure, the brand manager may read the trades — and maybe she has a robust network of peers to tap for recommendations — but that’s not the most reliable pathway to take when the business need is acute and the need for an answer is long past due.

Related ReadingHow Brand Marketing Strategy Fits Into Product-Driven Organizations


The Scourge of the RFP 

Enter the request for proposal. RFPs are commonplace today, and they are often dismissed by savvy new-business professionals as a waste of human resources. If a client sends out 20 or more RFPs and then has a handful returned to sift through and assess, there will be more losers than winners. That’s just math.

Some larger and well-heeled agencies have a dedicated person or team that answers RFPs, but a great percentage of agencies are small businesses working hard to make ends meet. Therefore, an agency owner or manager may opt to pass on what she perceives as a wasteful process. 

As Serbian advertising guru Svetlana Ćopić said of her aptly named agency, No Agency: “[It’s] exclusively project-based and doesn’t participate in pitches, as we deeply believe they are not serving anyone. The most successful projects are based on mutual trust, deep personal understanding and shared courage to make a bold decision and stay behind it.”

Shared courage and bold decisions — now there’s a call to action that we can all heed. Ćopić is both an optimist and a realist. When the first interaction a client has with an agency is one where the agency works for free and spends weeks or months groveling to win the account, the agency is permanently damaged, as is the whole industry along with it.


How to Hire an Agency Properly

Thankfully, there is a much better way to find, meet and hire the creative marketing talent needed to build brand value and raise your company’s awareness, competitiveness and, ultimately, your marketplace value. 

Smart brand managers (and agency new-business pros) are always cultivating relationships that open doors. They’re noting the work that inspires them and forever looking up and out for new ideas and the people who bring them bravely forward. A little homework combined with a little legwork does wonders. 

3 Ways for Brand Managers to Avoid Wasteful RFPs

  1. “Inquire within” by attending Creative Mornings and other relevant events that put you in direct contact with local creative professionals.
  2. Ask for an in-person “get to know you” meeting with the agency teams on your short list. 
  3. Clearly define scope of work, sign a contract and pay the agency in advance.

The agency business is a people business. If you enjoy meeting with the team during the discovery phase, chances are good you will also enjoy meeting with the team every week for the next several months and years. 

The in-person meeting is critical to the process, and it need not be confined to a board room. The agency’s credentials ought to be established well ahead of the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is purely human: Is there chemistry between the players? Is there respect? 

One way that I like to shift the new-business discussion is by taking it outside the office. I offer prospective clients a “walk and talk,” where we meet at a designated spot in the city and hike for 30 to 60 minutes. 

This exercise is meant to disrupt the corporate way of thinking, and it does. When you’re in a rhythm on the trail, breaking a sweat and breathing harder than normal, your mind and body are in the right state for sharing information and taking in new ideas. (Side note: The adage, “never let them see you sweat” is one more tired concept. Let’s put it out to pasture.)

Building brands is pedestrian. It’s ground-level work: The agency and the brand both need feet on the ground and ears and eyes on “the street.” Decisions may be made in a far-off ivory tower, but how those decisions play out in real life should be the concern of all dedicated marketers. 

The modern marketer goes from white collar to blue and back to white, sometimes in the span of a few morning meetings. This is right and good. When a brand is lagging, by definition, some heavy lifting is bound to be required. 

Is this the stuff your team is made of? Can the agency team handle the heat? No RFP will ever provide a clue. Meanwhile, a rigorous climb up a literal hill will.

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