Agency Partnership

Want Stronger Agency Partnerships? Make Six Changes to Your RFP.

By Starr Million Baker


In the weeks-long process that is finding a new agency partner, that first step of drafting an RFP is often hastily executed, or its significance underestimated. On the agency side, we see it all the time. Marketing leaders will dust off an old RFP or ask a colleague for a template they’ve used in the past because in all honesty – creating one from scratch takes time you feel like you don’t have.

But think of it this way: if you want your RFP to bring in thoughtful, personalized proposals that will help you make an informed decision, it starts with the request itself. Your RFP is a powerful tool for sharing critical and up-to-date information about your company, so agencies can tailor their recommendations to the current state of your business, challenges, and goals.

To get a true picture of who will be the best partner for your business, include the following in your RFP:

1. Your ‘About Us’ We Can’t Find Online

Agencies should do their own research on your company ahead of your introductory call, so use the RFP as an opportunity to share information that they can’t find on your website. Insight like the makeup of your internal team, the state of your brand assets, the challenges you’re working against, and the larger business goals you’re trying to meet over the short- and long-term will help you get ahead of questions.

2. What You Want in a Partnership

Provide some context about what you’re looking for in an agency relationship. This doesn’t have to be lengthy, but you’ll want a well-thought-out paragraph or two on how you envision the partnership playing out. Does your ideal agency need to be proactive and scrappy? Should it take the lead on strategy? Or are you in need of a partner who can plug into your existing program and dial it up?

To help agencies best understand where you’re coming from, give them some background on what led you to this hunt for an agency in the first place. Help them understand your pain points, needs, and what you value most in this type of partnership.

3. Request for Expert Diagnosis

Many companies feel they know exactly what they need and are prescriptive in their RFP because of it. You might think, “I want reporters to write stories about us; therefore, I need a public relations agency.” Or, “We need to use our social media channels more effectively; therefore, I need a digital agency.” But remember that you’ve reached out to third-party experts for a reason. You’ll get more valuable responses if you frame your request like this: “I have this business problem and these goals. How would you tackle this challenge from a communications perspective?” This gives agencies space to make the best recommendations for where your company stands and what you’re trying to accomplish.

We wouldn’t advise that you go as far as to ask for a full-blown plan for your program. It’s an ineffective way to create a robust, data-driven strategy, and could do more harm than good in the long term because the agency is creating a “plan” without enough real information. Agencies should give you a taste of their strategy and creative ideas along with direction on how they would go about building your full program strategy, once the partnership is established.

4. Your Budget

Communications programs are incredibly scalable. The best agencies should be able to deliver flexible programs at a range of price points by prioritizing the activities that will drive maximum impact for your business. However, some great partnerships are never realized because one or both parties couldn’t have a direct conversation about budget. You wouldn’t be shopping if you didn’t know how much money you had in your wallet. Sharing your budget (a range is totally fine) during the RFP process allows an agency to give its best ideas in line with what a company can pay for. It not only saves everyone time, but also starts the partnership off on the right foot – with trust and transparency.

5. Customized Agency Experience and References

Most agencies have their best case studies displayed on their website, and chances are that you reviewed them when you initially vetted your list of potential partners. Instead of requesting case studies, ask agencies to personalize their experience to you. Ask how they would tackle a specific problem, or for an overview of a project that they’ve done in the past that’s pertinent to what you’re trying to do.

When it comes to sourcing agency references, the key is asking the right questions. Have them tell you what it’s like working with the agency as a team, how they approach new problems, or what creative solutions they’ve come up with. Yes, it’s nice to know that an agency can call up reporters at Axios, Business Insider, or The Verge, and have them take the call. But to dig deeper than media connections, ask questions that reveal their approach, like how do they build relationships with new reporters on new beats?

6. The Agency’s Character

The strongest partnerships are created when values align. Good agencies will share their mission, values, and other core tenants of their business. These will shed light on how they make decisions, how they approach client service and employee engagement, and what you can expect from the partnership. Getting to know the people who would be on your account team is another way to foresee good team fit. Who would you work with day to day? Take note of their expertise, but more importantly, is this person someone you can have an honest conversation with about what works and what doesn’t?

A Thoughtful RFP Pays Off in the Long Run

A true partnership – one in which both parties contribute ideas and strategy, not simply giving and taking orders – starts at square one. The best RFPs we’ve received are forthcoming about where the business stands and what they want to accomplish. Their prompts lead to deeper responses than a boilerplate and standard intro presentation. And they set the tone for the partnership with honest, open communication.

At the end of a successful RFP process, you’ll be able to answer, “What does the future look like with this agency, and is that the best path for my company?”