Many agencies dislike the RFI step that often occurs in agency search processes. At this year’s AdAge Small Agency of the Year Conference, one presenter went as far as to suggest that an RFI (Request for Information) should be a “red flag” to agencies. That same presenter claimed that clients don’t even read agencies’ RFI responses. Many in the crowd seemed to enjoy those comments.
In our experience at Mercer Island Group, this is not the case. We’ve been running transparent, respectful reviews for over 30 years. We’ve run hundreds of reviews. And we’ve learned just how important the RFI step can be – to agencies!
There are a number of reasons why the RFI step benefits agencies.
Clients Read the RFIs
Our clients read the RFI responses. Always.
In the 20 or so reviews we’ve completed this year so far, every single client team read the RFI responses. Clients of all job levels! CEOs, CMOs, VPs, Directors and other marketers.
And in every case, the RFI responses changed the client’s collective minds about at least one agency. An agency that would not have been a finalist without the RFI step became a finalist after the RFIs were reviewed.
If you remember one thing from this article, it’s this: clients read the RFI responses and the RFI responses matter.
RFIs Provide Agencies the Opportunity to Share the Critical Information that is Most Relevant to the Client
No agency can adequately cover on their website why they are the right agency for any one specific client. How could they? The website has to be relatively general, while every client has its own very specific needs. The RFI provides the agency the opportunity to make the specific case for why they deserve one of the few precious spots as a finalist. The RFI is an opportunity for the agency to share:
- A deeper, tailored view into the specific capabilities needed by the specific prospect
- Case studies that are specially selected for the prospect per that prospect’s business challenges and/or industry
- A view into the agency’s culture and how the agency’s culture is a good fit for the client
- More detail about the agency’s team
- The agency’s enthusiasm for the opportunity
RFIs Enable Small Agencies to Even the Playing Field
There are thousands of agencies in the US. For every review, we consider roughly one hundred that make sense. We grade the fifty or so that seem like the best fit relative to the client-approved Needs Assessment. And we help the client narrow that field to the ten or so that seem like the best candidates. Notably, that final group of ten include several agencies that the clients had never even heard of.
The RFI becomes the opportunity for these agencies to make their case. And they often make a strong enough case to make the finals.
The RFI is a Chance for Big Agencies to Nail It
Big agencies enter an RFI process with a presumed advantage of scale, staffing and a broader range of client experiences and case studies to fall back upon. And every day some big agencies in our reviews fail to show up well in the RFI step. Sometimes they “mail it in” and put very little effort or customization into the process. These agencies don’t deserve a spot in the finals. Without the RFI step, they may have advanced without really deserving it.
RFIs are an Important Insurance Policy for Clients
The agency review is a critical effort for most clients. They are embarking on a path where they end up putting their business, marketing budget and even careers at risk. The RFI helps clients to minimize that risk.
And, a special warning to clients: It is hubris for a consultant to suggest that they know the best agencies for an assignment without doing the work. The work, in this case, is a disciplined review.
Knowledge is power. RFIs give the client a chance to gather the information they need to select the right agencies to engage in an RFP process which typically comes next.
Participation is the Agency’s Decision
Of course, participation is up to the agency! Every agency invited has the opportunity to participate or to decline. If your agency doesn’t like the RFI process you are certainly free to decline. There are many fine agencies that would like your spot.
There are RFI Processes to Avoid
- Requesting a specially created video as part of the submission
- Requiring some kind of payment to the consultant for participation or for a “listing” in the consultant’s database
- Requiring spec creative as part of the RFI submission
Robin Boehler is a co-founder of Mercer Island Group. Robin has managed hundreds of agency searches and relationships for businesses of all sizes and types, like Ahold Delhaize, Starbucks, American Century Investments, PEMCO Insurance, PetSmart, Seabourn, Avis Budget Group, Sargento, Ulta Beauty, and dozens of other blue-chip firms. She also has consulted with a wide array of agencies including Digitas, Periscope, W&K, GS&P, Havas, Cactus, DNA, and many others. Robin is a frequent speaker, having presented and keynoted at events sponsored by the BMA, the 4As, AMI, and others.