CWC 30: RFP advice for agencies (Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake)

This episode includes helpful advice and useful tips for agencies as they respond to requests for proposals.

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Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake of RFP Associates partner with organizations seeking to retain PR and public affairs agencies. They take years of their own experience on the agency side to help clients navigate the process more effectively.

On this episode of Chats with Chip, Robert and Steve offer helpful advice and useful tips for agencies as they respond to requests for proposals.

The duo view their mission as improving the RFP experience for both buyers and sellers. They want to see a better process that makes the right match.

During this conversation, Robert and Steve discuss:

  • Choosing which RFP’s to participate in
  • Setting the right expectations from the start
  • Handling requests with some elements outside of the agency’s core expertise
  • Understanding what clients are looking for in the RFP response
  • Asking the right questions before submitting an RFP

Transcript

CHIP:
Hello and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip and I’m very excited about our topic. Today we’re going to be talking about the RFP process and some advice for agencies. And I’ve got two experts on the line today who can help provide some really good information. And I hope some good insight for all of you listeners, and my two guests are Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake from RFP Associates. Welcome to the show, guys.

ROBERT:
Thanks so much Chip

CHIP:
and Robert, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about RFP Associates and then we’ll jump into the conversation.

ROBERT:
Thanks so much Chip. We actually began RFP Associates a few years back to improve the method of identifying, evaluating and hiring communications agencies. Steve and I like to point out that we actually named our company RFP Associates, not so much to reflect on the document itself, but to advocate for a better process and how it should be administered, which we see as the problem, Steve and I work for and are paid by clients seeking a new agency. But we spend a lot of time advocating for those firms, particularly since Steve and myself, I’ve been on both sides of the aisle and understand what the clients and agencies require to be successful. Since our clients are the hiring entities, though, we find them agencies based on criteria that we develop with them, and then create the comprehensive RFP. We also have spoken before agencies and a hired by them for counsel on how they can improve the new business strategies. But having said that Chip, I must say that we pride ourselves as agency agnostic and honest brokers for our clients, and only connect them with the candidate agencies that really fit what they are seeking.

CHIP:
Well, I think that’s that I think that’s really helpful background. And, you know, obviously, because you guys focus exclusively on this, this process of finding agencies for your clients, it’s important….a lot of agency owners view the RFP process, sometimes I think as a as a black hole where, you know, they’re not sure it’s worth the effort to invest the time and the resources in producing responses, it’s, it’s often challenging to figure out what the right RFP is to respond to are, is this is this a legitimate RFP? Or is this, you know, simply a Procurement Office forcing someone to go through a process? You know, as a how, you know, from a very top line level, how do you think agencies should be viewing the RFP process today? And, and, and how is it that you help them better understand it?

STEVE:
Sure. Well, I think Chip, to address your question, I think, first regarding the RFP process, you know, we get when Robert and I are talking specifically with, you know, agency owners and managers, there’s almost a universal sort of gasp whenever, whenever even the term RFP comes up. And, you know, we we’ve heard that many, many a horror story. We’ve heard many, many agency executives say there’s no way I’m ever going to respond to another RFP. And our response generally is, you know, is it the art? Is it the RFP generically? Or is it a is a poor RFP process that is bothering you? And so, you know, our response is not, it’s not a yes or no, you either should or shouldn’t respond to this RFP. But we counsel we counsel agencies to….if they do get unsolicited, obviously, RFP, they should first and foremost, take a look at it. And if it’s missing information, they should ask to, they should ask questions and fill in the blanks. And we sort of talk about agencies sort of should have an RFP Bill of Rights, you know, self directed Bill of Rights. And one of those is, you know, your right to, to ask questions regarding the scope of work. If it’s not clear, if there is no budget in the RFP you certainly have the right to ask, ask for that. And, you know, after you go through, you know, that kind of a process the on the agency’s part, you know, if if answers are refused, or if you cannot sort of, you know, improve the level of information or background, then probably, we would advise walk away from it. But that that’s basically our basic approach. When we when we talk with agencies who kind of recoil in horror, the minute they they hear RFP.

CHIP:
Well, I think the challenges that we, a lot of agencies have been on both sides of this, right. So a lot of agencies have been involved in helping a client to write an RFP to get through the procurement process. And so they’ve seen that side of it. And they’ve been through the process where, you know, they take the time to respond, thinking that it’s an open process, only to find out that it isn’t, and I think your advice that you that you ask questions, and if you don’t get engagement, that’s probably a bad sign. But, Robert, I mean, you know, how much how much of this is governed by actual internal policies, at the at the companies that are putting out the RFP, and how much of it is, you know, really based on the individual personalities involved in putting together the RFP process?

ROBERT:
Well, first of all, I think our clients take our advice, but I also think that we’ve definitely seen over the last several years, you know, the migration of communications departments taking taking hold of the RFP process, even if they have to work with procurement or other departments. I mean, there was always that fear that procurement was dictating what needed to be done. But I think it has properly morphed into the fact that communications departments can control and dictate all the elements, it’s just procurement requires, you know, back, you know, back back lot background checks, excuse me, and other necessary points to make sure that they’ve conformed with the way the corporate structure requires all contracts be made. So I think that’s an important first piece of this. The other thing I wanted to quickly mention, you know, to Steve’s point, is that it’s amazing to us, how many agencies of all different sizes that we talked to that that, you know, recall stories to us about receiving RFPs, not really wanting to respond to them, but doing it anyway, and then eventually, being disappointed with the outcome and feeling how much time that they wasted. And we don’t think that should ever be the case. And we really feel that by Steve recommended the Bill of Rights, that agencies learn to push back a bit and not necessarily accept what’s on paper, because it takes so much of their time to do the responding.

CHIP:
I think that’s good advice. And I think, you know, one of the things, the signs, obviously that someone is serious about it is that if they retained someone like RFP Associates to do, you know, part of the process with them, you’re not going to do that, if it’s just a pro forma process, presumably, if they’re working with you, it’s a serious RFP, it’s, it’s meant to be a real process. Right?

STEVE:
Well, that’s exactly right. Sometimes I sometimes I refer to, to RFP Associates, as Robert and myself as the RFP cops. You know, we, we, we the I think the greatest service we provide our clients, again, the hiring entities, is to be to enforce a process that ensures that, you know, that we are meeting deadlines, we’re meeting commitments to the agency candidates in terms of, of, you know, deadlines are responding, you know, going from, you know, responses regarding the proposal to to them, maybe finalists, presentations, etc. But really, and also making sure, for example, that there’s consistency in terms of how we’re evaluating incoming, you know, how our client is evaluating incoming proposals, and ultimately presentations, one of the things, for example we do is create a, a score sheet, that everyone who’s going to be reading proposals or sitting in judgment in, in presentations, or is going to use so that we’re looking on an apples to apples basis, you know, at those, you know, at those, that those responses, so that’s really, that’s really our approach is to, you know, kind of passionately enforce our process, which, you know, all modesty aside, we think has worked very well for for our clients and has, as Robert says, many times, you know, the cream will always rise to the top. And we’d like to think that, you know, again, through that process, the our clients who have truly been able to retain, you know, the very best agency partner that they can, that they can find.

ROBERT:
And the agencies that respond to our clients’ RFPs, are also wind up being very satisfied with the process as well, we ensure that it’s very transparent. They know who they’re competing against, they all receive the same information. Everything is done very aboveboard, everything is very clear in the actual RFP, so there’s no surprises, and there’s no elements of distrust or concern. And that’s very important to us. And it’s actually very disappointing, to really know and understand that a lot of that doesn’t really go on in the industry, which obviously creates this tension between clients and agencies.

CHIP:
What would you say to, to, you know, smaller agency owners about the RFP process? Is it, I think there’s a perception amongst, you know, small to mid sized agency owners that maybe RFPs are designed more for the big boys, if you will have the time and the resources and all that. And I think part of that comes from the fact that a lot of RFPs are written almost as wish lists of everything that they’d love to see. And it’s sometimes difficult to tell, you know, what’s, what’s the desire versus need? Is there good advice that you would offer to the smaller players? And the ones who, you know, maybe it’s going to be a bigger hit on them to invest the time to respond to an RFP?

STEVE:
Well, I would, I would answer your question two ways. And a few years back, you know, Robert, and I addressed the Counselors Academy spring meeting out in the West Coast. And so we were in front of, I guess, mostly medium sized agencies. And this this whole, this question came up, and it was, a lot of times, the question Chip, is prefaced with, you know, I wish I received more RFPs, I just, I don’t even get invited to the party. And that that really goes to you know, marketing and making sure that you’re communicating, you know, your brand as a mid mid size agency, in whether it’s, you know, in the sectors where you where you’re doing your most work, or if you’re a boutique agency, etc. Beyond that, though, I think, you know, if you do receive an RFP, and you, you know, you read through it, it sounds like it’s been written for the big boys, as you as you put it, again, I go back to, you know, being a bit assertive, and and asking directly. Who am I competing against? You know, before I respond to this, and as Robert said, I mean, I sometimes even our clients will raise an eyebrow, one of the first things we advocate to take a step back is, you know, once we have once we’ve issued the RFP, the first thing we do is we host or our clients host a bidders call, and everybody on that call, and typically, we will have six to eight agencies, we recommend that, you know, no more than six to eight agencies received that initial RFP and this is after after those six to eight have been winnowed down from much larger, you know, much larger list that Robert and I will help help evaluate. First thing we begin recommend is a bidders call, so that everyone on that call, the medium sized agency owner knows that he or she is competing against, you know, HK Strategies and Fleishman Hillard. And you know, that’s a good thing from from everybody’s standpoint, you know, the medium sized agency can decide at that point, hey, I’m going to bow out now. Or they can say, Okay, I’m up against HK Strategies and Fleishman Hillard, and I know, you know, I know what I need to do. And so again, as Robert said, you know, we really advocate for, you know, full, full transparency when it comes to competition. And sometimes that surprises people, as does the other thing that we always insist on being in that RFP is is budget, at least budget parameters. So that so you know, this, this notion of putting in the RFP, you know, you tell me what I need to spend, this is what I want done that you come back with a price is, is, you know, clients are doing themselves a disservice if they if they treat the RFP process that way.

ROBERT:
There’s two other elements too, Chip and that is, you know, don’t be part of a cattle call. And that’s always a big concern and an anger amongst agencies, you’re not being told how many agencies you’re competing against, and/or you know, that there’s such a large pool, you know, your odds of winning just are diminished, and there’s someone in sales in a totally different industry has explained to me, you know, why would you want a one in 20 chance, instead of a one in five chance, it’s just the odds are stacked against you. So be careful about that. And the other piece of it too, which we always tell agencies is that they should not pretend they can do something that they can’t do either. Do not shoehorn your your other capabilities into into what the client wants, your agency can either do it, or they can’t, because you’ll wait for that RFP that will come that your agency can totally do it, hit a home run and respond and then potentially win, as opposed to constantly trying to massage a response in order to hopefully win this business.

CHIP:
What would you say to agencies who are concerned about the idea that that their, that their own ideas will be stolen through the process, whether that’s because their proposal gets handed off to a competitor? Because the client says, you know, hey, I’m picking agency A but agency B had this good idea. I want you guys to implement it? I mean, is that is that a legitimate concern? Or is that something that perhaps is overblown?

ROBERT:
No, I think it’s a historical concern. And I think that agencies should be concerned about it. But you know, once again, I mean, I’d like to say, Steve and I have a proprietary process. But what we’re doing and what we’re what we’re recommending, is really not rocket science, it goes back to what Steve had said earlier about a bill of rights. And we think one of those Bill of Rights includes making it very clear, almost contractually, with a potential client, that any documents that they provide are not going to be, you know, shared or used if your agency is not chosen, I think it’s a very fair agreement to make between client and agency. Because the client should want you to feel comfortable putting in your all for this proposal. And the best way to get the best response from an agency is to give them the peace of mind that they should go all for it, and not worry about anything that they share to be used if they don’t get the business.

STEVE:
That’s great. And the way we operationalize that, Chip, is you know, in our, in our process, we we proceed, the distribution of the RFP, to those six to eight agencies, with the distribution of a nondisclosure agreement. And that that, again, that does come from the hiring entity. But that can include a couple of different elements. Number one, it says, you know, you, you, were going to have confidential information in this request for proposal, and we expect that you’re not going to disclose that beyond, you know, the, the, the agency that’s receiving the RFP. Number two, it’s an affidavit of non of non conflict and competition. So, you know, there, there’s typically a list of either organizations, competitors, to our client, etc. And, you know, if we haven’t already, somehow, through our research and due diligence found out that those agencies, you know, are not, you know, are not, you know, working currently for for a comp competitor, that’s, that’s sort of sussed out. And then number three, you know, there, there’s an element of that NDA that basically promises on the client’s part that they will not, they will not take the intellectual property that’s going to be contained in the proposals and the presentations. So again, that’s to us that, you know, a good client will will proceed, you know, any discussion or any RFP process with that kind of non disclosure agreement.

ROBERT:
It’s ironic to us that an NDA is used so often in our business, either once the contract is signed, or in other elements when you’re working with a client, but it’s not used fundamentally to beginning at the first stage of the process, when a client should want to give as much information as possible, keep it confidential. And they also, as I mentioned earlier, should want to give an agency an opportunity to provide as much information as they can, even if it’s a creative idea that they just don’t want to be stolen and used in some other way.

CHIP:
And I think that exchange of information is so critical, not only because it helps the agency understand whether the the, the requesting organization is serious about having a process, but it’s also I’ve seen far too many agencies just guessing at what the client really wants. And at the end with an RFP response, that is totally off the mark, because they’ve made too many assumptions. They’ve, you know, they’ve sort of said, I know what this client is really looking to do without asking it without getting that information. So if you don’t have good information, you’re not going to put together a good proposal.

STEVE:
Well, that’s exactly right. We get on our soapbox, Steve, sorry, I was gonna say, I hear you’re absolutely right Chip, and at the end of the day, I think, you know, the, one of the principal services that we provide a client is, before we start banging out the RFP document, we sit down and we say, okay, what’s really going on here? Why do you Why do you need this agency? First of all, and then let’s talk about specifically when what problems do you need addressed what you know, what, you know, what activities do you need undertaken and why. And so the, the, ultimately, the most important part of that RFP becomes the scope of work. And there’s is a little bit of a delicate balance, obviously, you want to, basically, you want to have a scope of work in an RFP document, but you want to also leave enough freedom so that the competing candidate agencies have some creative, you know, flexibility and freedom and how they respond to that. But at the end of the day, you know, telling an agency here is really what we intend to do. And here’s what you know, the broad strokes, here’s what we would like for you to do. And here’s broadly what we do, how we going to what we intend to invest in this and invest in in the winning agency, I mean, that those, those two things are core and central to a good RFP.

ROBERT:
And my soapbox line is that really if everything we described, we have described for you works, then it’s better for the industry. And essentially, that’s, that’s the problem. There’s so many client agency relationships that go sour. And we think that it goes that goes back to what was included in the RFP or wasn’t included in the RFP, and how much better it would be, and how much better the relationships between clients and agencies could be, if it was properly scoped out and properly created from the beginning.

CHIP:
Now, you guys hope you guys have been involved in the RFP process for a long time. So you’ve seen, I imagine changes and trends and that sort of thing. So you know, what, what are you seeing today? That’s different than it was in the past? What are things that at see owners should be thinking about? You know, particularly if an agency has been around for a while? How is this process evolving? And how should they be thinking about it differently than they did in the past?

ROBERT:
Oh, technology is is is is a big is a big part of it. I think that clients are clearly asking for a lot more analytics, measurement data points, I think that’s very important to them. I also think that, that clients have to, or agencies have to recognize that when they respond now, they have to really be very mindful of, of the creative and visual elements of the response, in order for clients to be able to read them. I mean, I think a lot of times, we’re surprised by how dense some of these responses are, instead of sort of really being better laid out better, better design. So it’s in it’s an easier, more enjoyable read, then maybe your RFP response used to be, you know, a decade ago.

CHIP:
So would you say it’s less of the thud factor today and more of the, you know, sort of the overall presentation?

ROBERT:
Absolutely, and they have to contain both, don’t get me wrong, I mean, they have to cover all the elements that are outlined in the RFP, but they really have to have to recognize that they have to prepare a document that’s going to be read by hopefully, a team of people, and they have to be able to be able to understand what you’re saying, they have to be able to get to certain sections easy. And it all has to be, you know, presented in a very properly visual and appropriate manner.

STEVE:
They also I think agencies tend to forget that, you know, if they are one of those six to eight, or they’re one of a bigger cattle call, as Robert talked about, that, you know, the the evaluation team at the other end that the client is going to read, you know, six, or eight or 10, or 12 proposals probably have an awful lot in common with the proposal you’re submitting in terms of content. And so, you know, what can you do to, you know, make that content come alive. And I’m not just suggesting it’s all it should be all graphics and photographs and visuals, but but I am suggesting, you know, you’re competing, you’re competing, as Robert said, for attention and understanding and emotion, even even as even at the proposal stage. And going into that, knowing that is is important.

CHIP:
And are you seeing, generally speaking that the proposal itself is what wins? Or is it the personalities behind it when they make their final presentation? You know, how do you how do you weigh those? How much of it is that personal chemistry between agency and client? And how much of it is, you know, the actual substance that’s presented in the proposal?

STEVE:
Well, I think it’s for the I referenced a little bit earlier, the scorecard that we produce, and we do that at both the proposal stage as well as the presentation stage. So I would say you know, and typical, again, in our in our sort of process that we can try to passionately enforce, you know, our goal, when we receive proposals our client receives proposals is to get from that six to eight recipients of the RFP down to perhaps three finalists who will be invited in to do in person presentations. So I would say at the at the proposal stage Chip, it’s much more about substance, it’s, you know, have first of all has have is each of these agencies satisfactorily addressed everything that we had in the RFP in terms of what we wanted. And we’re very detailed about the contents of the proposal, even to the point where we basically say, we would like your table of contents to look like this, again, getting back to that apples to apples approach. And again, then we, you know, working with the evaluation team, we have everyone score the, you know, each of the proposals along the different criteria that we’ve laid out. And, you know, again, the the the three finalists are not necessarily always those with the three highest scores averaged out across the individual members, the evaluation team, but it’s the basis for conversation. So after after everybody does do that, then we sort of manage a conversation among the people who are evaluating and try to come to some consensus about, okay, who are our top three or four? If you will, then, you know, moving into the presentation stage, I think, you know, a couple of things. Number one, as my partner Robert likes to say, we’re not just asking the finalist agencies to come in and do a song and dance version of that proposal, what we recommend our client end, and by the way, there’s no perfect proposal. So we choose those three finalists, but we asked them to come in and address maybe some specific shortcomings that the evaluation team found in their proposal, first and foremost. And as well, as you know, we may even do a surprise, you know, sort of on the spot, problem case problem and see how they would respond. You know, in that in that presentation, but again, so the presentation is where I think some of the chemistry that you referenced, that’s where you know that that becomes even more important at that point. But so too, does does they’re addressing, you know, whatever shortcomings we may have found in those proposals, so. So it’s a combination, I think of substance and chemistry at the end of the day.

ROBERT:
But but so many of the proposals where, you know, the criteria, the excuse me, the criticism of agencies, is that they put in boilerplate. But the proposal does that stand out, are not just that they’re not boilerplate, but they’re enhanced. They’re personalized. We’ve seen proposals that include bios of employees that relate directly to what the clients work or mission is. And that element of actually going in and adjusting that bio to make it personalized to make other content, not just simply addressing the client issue, but really making it more more personal. Just it makes it better. It does establish the chemistry even before the presentations that goes a long way.

CHIP:
Well, this is I think this has all been great advice. And I’m sure we can go on for quite some time. So I’ll have to have you guys back on a future episode to talk in more detail about other topics related to the RFP process. But in the meantime, if someone’s interested in learning more about RFP Associates, where can they find you guys?

ROBERT:
We’re on the web, RFPassociates.net. And there’s lots of good information and regarding blogs, there’s a way for agencies to reach us and asked to be included in our database. And even if they’re not included in our database, we do find many agencies for clients during the sort of due diligence process that we that we perform for each of our clients for engagements, but it’s always good for us to know about you.

CHIP:
Absolutely. Well, again, I really appreciate you guys coming on today. I think this has been great advice for agency owners and executives and I look forward to having you guys on a future episode as well. Again, My guests today have been Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake from RFP Associates.

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