PR Agency RFPs: From Circus to Streamlined Process

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Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch

Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz, Founders, RFP Associates 

Who doesn’t love a circus? – Clients and public relations agencies when request-for-proposal (RFP) processes are run like one!

Unfortunately, too many agency searches become public circuses. A recent trade media article reported that 16 agencies were asked to respond to an RFP by a client.   

Imagine for a moment…

You were one of the agencies asked to commit significant time to complete an RFP with, assuming all other things being equal, a slightly higher than 5% chance of success.   

Or, you were not contacted, but think you were qualified. What do you do? With your boss on your back, demanding action, you reach out to your contacts at the company to try to become the 17th agency to be considered. 

Or, as the client, the agencies you want are not responding and agencies you are not interested in are clamoring to join the party.  

What starts out as an effort to get the best agencies for a project can quickly spin out of control to become the proverbial three-ring circus. This is not only bad for clients and agencies, but also the integrity of the RFP process.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. To take the analogy one step further, rather than allowing the process to become a circus, clients should manage it as a military (not a beauty) parade: Only those thoroughly vetted and qualified are invited to participate based on their expertise. Agencies are chosen because the client has conducted due-diligence and identified a limited number of firms with demonstrated experience in the client’s sector and/or with the issue or program envisioned by the client. 

As former clients and PR agency executives who have managed and responded to RFP processes, we’ve developed an efficient, disciplined, streamlined path for all parties designed to stop RFPs from becoming a circus. We believe this should be the industry standard.  

The first step is to cast a wide net to identify qualified candidates based on industry and communications expertise, location and size, and other criteria important to the project and client. With 6,000 agency and professional profiles on the communicationsmatch.com platform – any client can search for qualified firms at no cost to start the process. This can be supplemented by referrals. The point is to look over your known horizon for firms that may be the best suited for the assignment.    

The next step is to shortlist candidates with a focused, quick-to-complete, confidential request for qualifications (RFQ) questionnaire. This provides an efficient way to engage qualified agencies with questions designed to pinpoint relevant agency experience, expertise, and potential conflicts of interest.  A careful review of agency responses will allow for the elimination of many candidates without asking them to invest in the more time-consuming work of responding to a formal RFP.     

We recommend selecting no more than five to seven PR agencies to receive a customized RFP. These are generally sent with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to maintain confidentiality. At this stage, the client’s identity is revealed to the candidate agencies. There is no public announcement of the RFP, no self-invitations from outside PR firms, no circus.

While keeping searches out of the media limelight is generally a positive, it is essential that the RFP process is transparent and fair for participating agencies. By providing a clear scope of work for the project, budget parameters, measures of success, and the opportunity for agencies to share their thinking and relevant case studies, a well-structured RFP process is critical for all parties. Leveraging our Agency Select™ tools and search consulting expertise to create customized RFPs ensures candidates compete on a level playing field and allows clients to review agency responses side-by-side. 

By narrowing the number of PR agencies at each step, the process should ensure that the work associated with each step is commensurate with the level of interest by the client in hiring the potential communications partner. Resembling a funnel, our tools are built around a fundamental respect for agency and client time.  

The benefits are more than just time. As our research into agency search underscores, a more disciplined agency search process yields better results and stronger and longer-lasting client/agency relationships.  

Having managed numerous agency searches over the last decade, we know the process works. That’s why it’s built into our Agency Select tools and consulting services. Clients and the agencies they hired have succeeded, not by being circus ringleaders and performers, but through a carefully managed, disciplined search, selection, and hiring process that delivers long-term results. 


About the Authors:

Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch

Locke developed and launched CommunicationsMatch, an agency search and engagement platform with 5,000 listed firms and professionals in 12 countries, to help companies find and engage agencies, consultants and freelancers that match needs. A founder of communications agencies and startups, he previously headed communications functions at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank. 

Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz founded RFP Associates in 2011 after observing the agency selection process from “both sides of the aisle” and recognizing the need to streamline and improve the way searches are made and agencies selected from an honest, unbiased approach. Over the course of their careers Robert and Steve have worked at agencies, corporations, and trade associations in New York, Washington, and, for Steve, in Beijing, China, where he opened Fleishman-Hillard’s first Asian office. In recent years they have also been sole practitioners for a variety of clients seeking media, crisis, and strategic counsel.