6 Key Steps to Better RFP Results in Higher Ed… A Marketing Agency Viewpoint

Where do the “Key Steps” come from?

After working for 20+ years in higher education on the client side preparing RFPs, I worked for 6 years with an agency specializing in higher education marketing. Since 2006, I’ve been working as an independent marketing consultant with 80+ clients, primarily colleges and universities.

My notes here reflect lessons learned over those years in a quick effort to help both clients and agencies waste less time during an RFP process and get more benefit from it. Some of these might seem obvious. Trust me. They are not obvious to everyone.

What’s your budget?

Few people are willing to state a budget range in an RFP.  Most often I’m told that is from a fear that the agencies responding will just “spend all my money” in their proposals. Sometimes people tell me it is because they do not have a budget yet and are using the RFP process to make a budget request based on the responses received. (If you are in this second group, be honest about it up front. It will help agencies understand how much you know about the work at hand.)

Consider these benefits of a budget reveal:

  •         If you tell agencies or consultants how much money you have to spend you will be able to better compare the substance of what you will get from each responder and find out what your $20,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 or more will buy.
  •        You won’t waste time reviewing proposals that you can’t possibly afford. And agencies won’t waste time responding to what might they might consider a college or university with an unrealistic budget.
  •         If you have not had time to learn what your proposal is likely to cost, just say so. That will tell agencies what you know about the subject at hand and let them decide whether or not to respond.

Allow a decent response time.

No, you are not likely to get the best response from an agency when you give just two weeks to return a detailed RFP. Try for 30 days as a much more reasonable time. That’s especially true if you want responses from smaller agencies that are busy with active client work and do not have staff working exclusively on RFP responses. One reason smaller agencies sometimes price themselves lower than larger ones: less overhead for people hired to respond to RFPs.

Who will review the RFP responses?

Higher education is notorious for extended, complicated review processes but that’s not true of every college and university. Let agencies know in advance who is involved in selecting the RFP winner and how long you expect the decision to take. That will also give agencies an early insight into the customs and culture of a college or university. You will end up with responses from firms that are comfortable working within your system.

Who will approve the work?

Be as detailed as possible in explaining who will approve the work done by the agency awarded the project. I once decided, for instance, not to bid on a web writing project for the academic divisions at a large state university when I read that the copy would be reviewed and approved by both a faculty committee in the division and the university marketing staff.

If you can’t outline the complete approval process, can you identify the project manager? If you can’t do that, your homework is not complete.

Is there an incumbent agency?

Sometimes a college or university, no matter how pleased with their current agency, is required to generate an RFP process after, say, 5 years. From a client perspective, that makes sense. The client gets to see new approaches and to check pricing practices.

But give prospective RFP responders the curtesy of telling them if an incumbent agency is being asked to bid on the project. You don’t have to say whether or not you still like the incumbent, but at least give potential new agencies the ability to make a decision on whether or not they want to compete in this setting. Some will not.

Let’s be frank. Sometimes clients know in advance that they intend to renew a relationship with the incumbent agency. Some potential new firms will elect to tilt against that windmill. Let each agency make that decision.

Don’t ask for “spec creative” work.

Yes, you can ask to see work done by an agency for other clients. Indeed, you might have already reviewed that work before inviting agencies to respond to your RFP. But agencies hate preparing new creative work for your project as part of the review process. Particularly when you add something to the RFP giving you ownership of whatever is submitted.

The bottom line: most successful agencies will not respond to RFPs like this in all but the most unusual circumstances. And even if you are the rare school that has the brand strength to have agencies salivating to add you to a client list, asking for spec creative still shows poor form on your part.

One last point.

When your selection process is over, let the losers know they lost right away. You might even go the extra mile and let people know who won.  

That’s all for now.

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