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A request for proposal (RFP) is a document used to solicit proposals from multiple suppliers. You typically use an RFP to understand agency capabilities and provide a structure for evaluating a shortlist of agencies competing for your business.

The lesser used RFI (request for information) is a more abbreviated approach to pre-qualifying your shortlist – and in this article, we’ll help you understand the:

  • Difference between an RFI and RFP
  • Elements of an RFI
  • Way to write an RFP
  • RFP do’s and don’ts

Difference Between an RFI and RFP

Basically, an RFI is best used to solicit initial interest and collect high-level information to narrow the pool of agencies you’ll send a more detailed RFP.

If signing an agency’s contract is like getting married, the RFI is the first date and the RFP is going steady. We recommend sending only 3-7 agencies an RFI, and the RFP to even fewer.

While the RFI’s main purpose is to qualify a final set of agencies by collecting top-level information, the purpose of the RFP is to facilitate a more detailed evaluation of fewer agencies.

Purpose and Elements of an RFI

Here are the three purposes of a marketing agency RFI:

  • To solicit the interest of agencies who might wish to work with you and want to know more about your requirements
  • To gather an introductory round of information, validate assumptions and determine next steps
  • To narrow down the number of candidates who are eligible to receive an RFP (which comes later)

Wikipedia defines the RFI as a standard business process whose purpose is to collect written information about the capabilities of various suppliers. This is the first step in the process of narrowing down your list of potential agencies.

Mature agencies will recognize the use of an RFI as part of a process that is more strategic than the typical rush they deal with from companies looking to hire quickly.

If you’d like access to both RFI and RFP templates, or if you need to hire a digital marketing, creative, or ad agency — save a little time (and money) by skipping the rest of this post and downloading the 2018 Marketing Agency Buyer’s Guide.

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Here’s a brief description, and sectional break down of how to write an RFI.

Dates

Begin by clarifying your timeline and making sure it’s clear when a response should be returned.

High-Level Requirements

Tell your story. Explain what you’re looking for from an agency partner — the big picture of things. Talk about what improvements you’d like to see as a result of hiring an agency.

Company Overview

Give the agency an idea of who you are. Talk about your culture, values, and successes. Help them understand how you like to work with vendors and partners.

Questions

You’ll, of course, customize your own questions — but generally gear them to address the following three topics:

  • Experience Meeting Your Type of Requirements
    Ex. How has your agency worked with brands to define their voice, style, and mission? Specific examples are encouraged.

  • Experience Related to Industry, Tools and/or Relevant Subject Matter
    Ex. Which advertising and social media platforms does your agency have the most experience with?
  • Agency Resources
    Ex. What people, processes or proprietary tools differentiate your agency from others?
Compensation

Sharing your budget at this point is optional, but this is the time to understand the agency’s ballpark.

For example, if you’re a small startup, and you contact an agency that only works with multi-million dollar media budgets, you’ll want to know now that they aren’t a good fit.

Ask about typical retainer fees and/or average project fees to make sure you’re working with a partner who’s not too expensive or questionably inexpensive.

Follow-Up

Include a follow-up section to specify or restate important dates and your contact information.

There you have it. That’s the skeleton structure for how to write an RFI. If you want a more in-depth walkthrough and a stronger template, you can download the Agency Buyer’s Guide.

Defining Your RFP

As you now know, RFPs are more involved and specific than RFIs. The following outline shows you how to write an RFP that can be well received by an experienced marketing agency.  

If you’re thinking, “aren’t all RFPs going to be well received?” the quick answer is no.

Ideally, an agency prefers to earn and win business without the use of a traditional RFP process, which often feels like a “cattle call” — especially when the level of transparency and knowledge of competing agencies is limited.

The more inviting an RFP, the more appealing and inspiring it is for the agency. Like the elements referenced above for writing an RFI, consider the following headers for use in your RFP document (simply customize for your requirements).

Date

Clarify a range of available dates and times when an agency can respond. Allow at least a 75-minute time block for in-person or conference call presentations. Assume a presentation takes place unless:

  • There is a clearly defined and more narrow scope of work
  • You know and have worked with the agency before
  • You’re seeking pricing for a budgeted project with little variance
Background and Objectives

Restate what you wrote in the High-Level Requirements section of your RFI, but provide more detail regarding your (SMART) goals, which are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

Here’s an example:

Spurious is seeking a relationship-oriented, modern agency partner with cutting-edge experience that can be leveraged to increase our U.S. footprint, brand awareness, and sales initiatives.

Our goal is to engage an agency who not only has great ideas, but can execute on quarterly campaign initiatives to drive no less than 1,000 new unit sales within the next 12 months. We desire to partner with a collaborative group of experts who can work closely with our 8-person marketing team, effectively leading as well as serving with multiple creative and brand managers.  

The selected partner should have a firm grasp on our current strategy, and ideas of where to grow that strategy. We are separately providing additional research and data for your consideration.

Key objectives include:

  • A wildly successful Q3 campaign: 1,000 new subscribers, and 5% brand lift
  • Massive sales growth: 40%, with over 20% of that from the new product line.
Scope and Services

This section of the RFP is critical because an agency’s response will give you a better idea of their qualifications and ability to do the work you need. Make a list of services you desire. For example:

  • Online advertising (search, PPC, display, social, programmatic)
  • Content strategy and production (copy, creative, video)
  • Social media/influencer marketing
  • SEO
  • Email marketing
  • E-commerce and conversion optimization
  • Strategy, analysis and unified reporting

You should expect a response to match the agency’s capabilities and previous work.

Budget

Here’s where you’ll share your budget. If possible, be specific regarding how dollars may be divided.

For example, what percentage will be allocated between “working dollars” for paid media vs. agency fees? (Side note — “working dollars” is a bit of a misnomer when you have an agency that’s really crushing it for you, but we digress).

Some companies refuse to share a budget until they get a quote from the agency, but this is usually a bad idea. For one, without stating a budget, you’ll hinder an apples-to-apples comparison because agencies will be forced to make assumptions about your budget or propose “tiered” versions that won’t actually work well without a certain budget.

RFP Timeline

This is where you provide key dates for the RFP process. Here’s an example timeline:

DayDateDescription
Friday8/3RFP Sent to Finalists
Friday8/10Email Questions About RFP
Monday – Friday (2 weeks)9/10 – 9/21Scheduled Presentations
Friday9/28Winner Notified

 

RFP Terms and Conditions

Here you lay out the terms of your selection process. This doesn’t have to be overly involved, and can look something like this:

(Your company) reserves the right to choose an agency as the selected partner regardless of bid pricing, or any other factor. All submitted ideas and information in the proposal can be used regardless if the agency is selected or not. Late submissions will not be considered. A signed NDA must be received in order to participate in this RFP.

RFP Contact Information

Provide contact information such as name, job title, company name, company mailing address, email, and phone number.

RFP Do’s and Don’ts

The big fear for most agencies is when a company asks for the “Big Idea” as part of the RFP. One example is a company asking agencies to develop a personalized branding strategy including creative work to earn their business.

This is known as “spec work,” which is offering creative work for free with hopes of getting paid later. Companies usually justify this strategy in one of two ways:

  1. This is the best way to see how agencies think and test their creative.
  2. This is part of the cost of sales (investing time to earn your business).

However, asking for the “big idea” undermines the purpose of the RFP in three ways:

  1. The “give us your campaign ideas” approach often forces agencies to pay less attention to the most important parts of their own creative process.
  2. This is where recycled ideas thrive. Ill-fitting agencies can get lucky with barely-informed, subjective exercises where the best eye candy wins.
  3. There’s significantly more value in understanding “how we’ll actually work together” vs. “our idea got everyone stoked but isn’t strategically or authentically aligned with the brand.”

If seeing creative work that’s relevant to your requirements is important, be sure to state that in the RFP. Ideally, you will see creativity in the response itself, and not feel like you’re receiving a cookie-cutter response.

Finally, do a little work to make your RFP short and concise, appreciating that less can be more. We understand if you’re bound to corporate templates, but see how you might provide shortcuts for certain requirements that can produce hours of administrative work for you or the agencies vying for your business.

Has this been helpful? For free and easy-to-use RFP/RFI templates, along with a ton of other useful tools and guides, download the Agency Buyers Guide now. If you’re in the market for a new marketing agency, also feel free to contact us.

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Jason Cormier

Jason Cormier

As co-founding Partner of Room 214, Jason is dedicated to helping people and companies grow and innovate. He is a best-selling author of Transformative Digital Marketing, is on HubSpot's Global Partner Advisory Council and serves as a mentor for social entrepreneurs at Watson University. He believes in acting out of love instead of fear, connected leadership and open book management.
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Isaiah Cormier

Isaiah Cormier is a Marketing Associate at Room 214, and has a focus on inbound marketing. He holds over a dozen HubSpot certifications and is studying Marketing and Neuroscience at Montana State University.
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