At Big Ideas Machine we are incredibly lucky that the majority of our clients come to us via recommendation. But that’s not to say that we never get involved in competitive pitches for work. Just like every other agency, we get our share of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from companies looking for their next agency partner. Some of these RFP’s are clear, concise and informative, and establish the wider process that a PR agency RFP is only the start of. Sadly, the majority are about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Often, the main reason for a poor public relations agency RFP is that the sender isn’t aware what an RFP is in the first place, and so misses out much of the essential information an RFP should include. What you are then left with is a long email about why this company/product is so cool and important, but no clues as to what you as an agency are expected to do or why.
Sending out a good Pr agency RFP is important as it ensures everyone involved in the process is on the same page, and that expectations are clearly set. For the company managing the RFP process this is important as it gives those shortlisted the best chance of showing their best ideas and aligning their thinking to the business challenges to be solved. For the agencies, a decent RFP saves a huge amount of time and effort, and lets you quickly define whether you are the right team for the job.
So, in the spirit of sharing our knowledge, and in the vain hope that we might stop people sending us rubbish RFP’s, these are the key foundations of what makes a good PR agency RFP.
Explain your problem clearly
Sending out an RFP lets an agency know that you want some PR support; that’s the obvious bit. What we really need to know is why? What business goal or communications challenge do you need help with? Has the RFP been prompted by a change of direction or a new product launch?Where did your previous or existing agency fail to deliver – or are you appointing an agency for the first time? The more you can explain, the better the agency can focus their pitch back to you.
You don’t need to go into great detail or share any trade secrets. But it makes a big difference from the outset to get a clear outline of the challenge, and any useful information that can’t be easily deduced from your website and digital footprint.
Provide some background into your values and the kind of agency that you’re looking for
Once again, it’s simple enough to read the ‘about us’ section of a website, but that never tells the whole story. By explaining your values you are more likely to find an agency that is a good fit both for your objectives and your business culture. This is important, as good client/agency relationships are built not only on a shared set of goals, but also compatible working practices.
When writing an RFP a company will naturally focus on explaining what makes them so successful, unique and interesting. But once the pitch process is over and an agency is appointed then the real work begins. Any misalignment between agency and client on either a professional or personal level may well be a reason for the partnership to fail. Honesty is good, and it’s perfectly fine to say what kind of agency you are not looking for as well as what you are.
Explain your goals and your target audience in the PR Agency RFP
You wouldn’t have started this process without some kind of end goal in mind, so be upfront and share it. Too often a pitch process can feel like a test of detective skills, where the agency needs to deduce what they are being asked to deliver. This is especially crucial in today’s digital media landscape, where the emphasis has shifted away from simply achieving media coverage to a more complex blend of content creation, web traffic, social sharing and consumer action.
Also, consider including any information about how these goals will be measured. One of the reasons why the PR industry is traditionally weak on measurement is that very few clients ask for much more than a weekly activity report and a monthly list of coverage. But smart agencies understand that effective tracking and measurement should be baked into the strategy from the beginning, making it far easier to show the value of the PR effort to the overall business.
Give us some idea of budget – pretty please!
Knowing what budget there is to work with allows an agency to create plans and ideas which are realistic and deliverable. So why do so many RFPs avoid any mention of budget at all? Far too often agencies are instead asked to put forward their own suggestion, which is about as scientific as asking a blind person to guess the length of a piece of string.
Without the anchor of a realistic budget to work to, many PR pitches end up aiming either too high or too low as the agency responds with PR on a shoestring or over-creative ideas that would require the GDP of a small country to deliver. With the pitch and appointment process time consuming for everyone involved, making a decision based on ideas that will never make it off the Powerpoint deck would seem to be a wasted opportunity.
Transparency on budgets should also work both ways. Ask the agencies you are considering for their fee structure and any additional costs or charges. And don’t forget to factor in the time and cost of tracking and analysis, which from experience is essential to running an effective campaign and measuring results against the set goals – but can swallow a large proportion of the available budget, and so often gets ignored.
Tell us what your key selection criteria will be
OK, so this is very much on the nice to have list – but remember, this is about writing the perfect PR agency RFP. You are going to get a range of proposals back, and each agency will have a different approach, different capabilities and contrasting strengths and weaknesses. By clarifying the criteria by which you plan to evaluate the proposal you help them deliver the most appropriate pitch.
This can also be a way of vetting agencies at the very start of the process. For example, it’s not uncommon for publicly listed companies to specify that an agency should not also work with one of their rivals, due to the sensitivity of commercial information the agency may handle. We’ve previously worked on RFPs that required financial disclosure from the agency to demonstrate the solvency of the business, and even ones that specify the PR team be active users of the company’s products. Better to excuse yourself from the process at the start than put a lot of work into a pitch that you have no chance of winning.
Explain what happens next
When do the responses need to be in? Do they need to be in a particular format? Who is the point person throughout the process? When will the pitch be – and when will the decision be made? Once again, sharing this information up front in the RFP may not be essential, but they are all questions you will be asked by everyone involved – so you might as well include them from the beginning.
Remember, there are no hard and fast rules for what a PR agency RFP looks like and what it contains. But having seen plenty of them over the years the best ones have been clear, concise and honest. By including information that follows these headings – as well as asking direct questions of the agency itself – you can save a huge amount of time and effort, and give yourself the best chance of receiving a great response. The right agency with the right plan can have a fundamental effect on the success of a business. So make sure that plan for success starts with a good PR agency RFP.