Robert Udowitz, Principal of RFP Associates, works with communications managers to develop PR agency RFPs that work. Often the managers don’t have a lot of time to put PR agency RFPs together; managers are busy, and so have to work on weekends. There’s also the benefit of having another experienced PR person review an RFP. That other set of educated eyes is invaluable in understanding whether you’ve described what really needs to go into an RFP.
Robert and his fellow Principal of the firm, Steven Drake, took some time to answer a few questions about their company, and how it works. Here's the interview and result.
John: What issues do communications managers have to consider when developing a PR agency RFP?
Robert & Steven: First and foremost, we feel that they have to be certain of what they want and need and then articulate it properly. One of the reasons we saw value in our business was that we were consistently hearing from companies not satisfied with the agency they hired and, conversely, agencies frustrated that their new clients need work not outlined in the original scope of work. It all starts with the RFP.
Before the RFP hits the street, managers need to look internally. You might be surprised, but we speak to some organizations that don’t really need an outside agency as much as they do a reconsideration of how their communications functions are managed and structured internally.
Another necessary point to consider: do expectations match the allocated budget? Nothing will poison an agency search faster than either not including a budget or including a budget that doesn’t come close to addressing the desired scope of work.
John: What are some of the things communications managers forget to put in their RFP?
Robert & Steven: There are never enough relevant details, sufficient background information, or frank discussions about the challenges of the organization included. Over the years we’ve seen big holes in the rationale behind the scope of work or lack of historical context included to really provide the full story leading up to the RFP (remember, all of this potentially sensitive information can be protected at the onset through a non-disclosure agreement). This may include crisis (present or past), management issues, product problems, and community issues. These details are needed so an agency can do less digging and more thinking. An RFP should not produce a guessing game!
John: What is the value of an RFP to a company?
Robert & Steven: First, it disciplines the organization to seriously consider what it is that they need. It’s true for all of us. When we have to sit down and really ponder what we need and then try to rationalize it, we’re left with a clearer sense of what we hope to gain out of our intended course of action. A valuable RFP – one that an agency should pursue and an organization can expect will reap a great agency relationship – articulates what a company is precisely looking for and enables an “apples to apples” comparison of responding firms.
Second, it should provide a blueprint of what you want and how you’d like to get there. It should prepare both parties for the work they are about to tackle. It benefits the company and the agency to have as clear a focus as possible out the gate.
John: What are 3 best practices in RFP writing everyone should consider?
Robert & Steven: Be comprehensive. Tell them what you need, what you want, and when you need it. The more and better you describe your symptoms to your doctor, the better chance for an accurate diagnosis. Why deny a candidate agency an important detail, which can lead to a really smart engagement?
Include the budget. In PR the difference between an additional 5 or 10k a month will significantly affect the resources provided by an agency. A lot of companies like to play cat and mouse when it comes to offering up the budget. It makes no sense when you are trying to build a long-term relationship with an agency and when you are trying to get an honest response to what they can provide. It just starts the relationship on the wrong foot.
Play fair. Give all the candidate agencies the same information and ensure they set a realistic timeline. If you’re in a rush to hire an agency, don’t bother issuing an RFP, and then be realistic about what to expect from your new agency. You have to commit to an objective process and give it time to identify for you the best agency suited for your work.
John: Why is it important to include a budget in your RFP?
Robert & Steven: Without a budget in your RFP how are you possibly able to equally compare one agency’s ideas, strategies and overall approach to another? If an agency is left to its own devices – told, “you tell us what we need to spend, and tell us how to spend it” – you’ll get as many different answers as you have candidate agencies. It’s crazy and frankly inane not to include budget parameters in your RFP. Do it and you’ll thank yourself (and maybe also RFP Associates).
John: Why is it important to describe recent crisis and reputation hits your company has experienced?
Robert & Steven: We are only as good as the information we are provided. Going into any relationship with an agency means you should bare it all so they make intelligent recommendations based on everything you know. Returning to the doctor analogy, no one can prescribe an intelligent course of action without knowing your medical history and symptoms. Think of it another way: If you hide such information during the RFP/proposal/presentation process, spring it on your selected agency at the conclusion of the process, and expect the agency to altogether shift gears and save you from disaster – how will the agency respond? How will you feel as the client? And perhaps most importantly: What would your CEO have to say?
John: What are the key skills and capabilities a PR agency should exhibit in 2012?
Robert & Steven: We put strategy and counsel in the top sphere in any year. You should be hiring an agency for their experience and understanding of your industry and situation, first and foremost. They should be able to listen, learn, and understand. Once they know where you’re coming from and where you want to go the tactics will all fall into place. The best agencies are always thinking for their clients, always coming up with intelligent and creative ways for their communications plans to work, and, even more important, are proactive.
A critical skill in today’s social media world, is maintaining a pulse on where this communications approach is headed and how to properly track and measure your social media efforts. The dust has settled on the transition away from purely traditional approaches to PR but the real renaissance is in the measurement metrics. It’s a matter of how defining goals and making your methodology transparent.
John: What are some of the innovative responses you’ve seen to RFP?
Robert & Steven: There’s nothing wrong with some flash, pomp, and show in a response but it still boils down to a concise demonstration of knowledge of the issue and how the agency intends to take you to where you need to go. Anything to make the review process more interesting is appreciated -- but it has to get down to brass tacks pretty quickly.
Still, the devil is in the details. PR folklore includes the story of a major overnight package company that issued an RFP, only to receive several of them back using the competitor’s service (those went in the trash, unopened). And, there’s the fast-food chain that quizzed the agencies on the cost of a burger in its restaurants during the presentations, to be met with gaped shock, and astonishing ignorance! Talk about a gotcha moment.
John: What’s the most unusual RFP you’ve seen in your years in the business?
Robert & Steven: Government RFPs tend to be the most unusual. Most are so bureaucratic and laden with process and procedure they appear to be more like a labyrinth in a game magazine. The majority of times they are anything but strategic and forthcoming with what truly matters. Unusual RFPs still exist today – they are one page, contain no information and due a week from the day they were issued.
The most unusual we’ve seen compiled are, with all due modesty, are those we have developed for clients over the past several years. Why? Because we insist on including two things most RFPs omit: the program budget, and directions, which make it clear responding agencies will know who their competition will be. We believe that leaving out a budget, and keeping respondents secret from one another, does a disservice to agencies and more importantly, to the hiring organization.
John: What happens after an agency wins the RFP, how does the agency and client use the document to support the relationship?
Robert & Steven: A well-written, comprehensive RFP, coupled with a good response from an agency makes it very easy to transition from prospect to client. Once the agency is selected there should be no problem with hitting the ground running by meeting with the client.
We advise a reality-check after the first three months to make sure the account/work is keeping on its course. Just like any business – or business relationship – its ok if it needs some course correcting early on. Its better than letting problems snowball.