Ad agencies and RFPs… a backlash to client behavior

Why Are Ad Agencies Throwing out RFPs? 8 Steps for Universities to Follow

Took time today after finishing my “Writing Right for the Web” presentation for the J.Boye Web and Intranet Conference next week to read a very interesting AdAge article, “Agencies Learn How to Just Say No.”
The essence of the article is simple: faced with potential clients sending out RFPs with ridiculously shorts deadlines requiring considerable commitment of agency resources without knowing anything about the potential scope of the final contract, agencies are starting to toss many of them.
And that made me think of my experiences over the last 12 to 13 years. And so without further ado, here are 8 steps that in my fantasy world I wish colleges and universities would follow more often when in search of an external marketing partner.
Think of us as partners not vendors
  • You should be looking for an external extension of your marketing team. “Vendors” sell you computers and food and light bulbs. If you think of the people you need to help you with your marketing efforts as “vendors” the relationship is not getting off to a good start.
Set a reasonable response time
  • Be realistic about the timeline to respond to your RFP. Allow at least four weeks from the receipt of your request. You’re not testing rapid response time. Most agencies are already engaged with existing clients. If you want the best work in the proposal you receive, give people a reasonable time to do it.
Tell us your budget
  • Yes, tell us how much money you have to spend. Then compare the responses you receive against that budget to determine who is giving you the most value for your investment. That can prevent agencies wasting their time because you have no idea what a project will cost. And you will not waste your time reading responses at $125,000 when you only have $25,000 to spend. 
  • I’m not making that last line up. That’s exactly what happened when a state university system in New England sent out RFPs for market research for each regional university. The committee preparing the proposal (not very marketing savvy) wanted to do “deep data mining” with the results and asked for a 99 percent confidence level. Every proposal received was priced between $120,000 and $150,000. Needless to say, nobody got the project. Everybody wasted time.

Do your agency homework 

  • Don’t send your RFP to every agency you can find in a CASE directory. Explore agency work, clients, and staff first and try to limit yourself to 10 firms at most. If I hear you’re flooding the marketplace, I’m much less likely to respond to your proposal.
Don’t ask for spec creative
  • Creative staff are busy folk. Most agencies are happy to share previous work for various clients. But only the most desperate ones will do new creative work in advance of a contract. 
Don’t ask for intimate financial details 
  • Most agencies will not share deep details about their financial status in a first response. If we make the first cut and you simply must know in advance of a final decision, ask us then.
Tell us about an incumbent
  • If there is an incumbent agency involved, tell us. Let us make the decision if we want to compete with an incumbent. Yes, we know that sometimes you have no intention of changing your existing agency but you are required to get new bids every so many years. Let each agency decide if it wants to compete in that situation. And don’t worry that you won’t get any responses. You will.
  • A friend once told me: “We have to do it and we just like to see other creative approaches from time to time.” Thanks, but no thanks. Not here to entertain you.
Tell us if we don’t get the work
  • And last but not least, if you don’t accept our proposal, be polite enough to tell us that. Don’t make us ask. We won’t commit suicide if you tell us we didn’t get the work. If you did your homework, we know you had two or three great final proposals and a difficult decision to make about who to add to your team.
And to the colleges and universities who already take these steps, thank you.
That’s all for now.

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Conferences in November
  • November 5-7, Aarhus, Denmark: J.Bloye Web & Intranet Conference, “Writing Right for the Web” tutorial and “A Need for Speed: Responsive Design in a Mobile World.” Check the entire program here.
  • November 10-13, Boston: AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Pre-conference tutorial on “Digital Marketing Strategy: Building Brand Strength and Enrollment.” Visit the Symposium website.
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