The Agency Questionnaire: RFP or RFI

January 1, 2002

Research can provide a reasonable amount of information, but it often does not provide the kind of detail the marketer needs to make an informed judgment on which agencies are most qualified for further investigation. For that purpose, a questionnaire is quite helpful. Often referred to as an RFP (Request for Proposal), a more accurate term is Request for Information (RFI).

The information sought on the agency's capabilities and experience should be relevant to the client's needs as outlined in the job description. More efficient than conducting face-to-face meetings with a large number of candidates, the questionnaire allows the marketer to confirm and expand on data already obtained, as well as to dig for more detailed, pertinent and up-to-date information.

Overall agency characteristics as they relate to the marketer. In today's world of mergers, acquisitions and consolidations, it is important to specify whether the information sought should pertain to the umbrella agency organization or the particular agency office that might handle the account, or both.

  • Size and growth history of agency: billings, number of employees, number and size of accounts, etc.
  • Organizational information: office/headquarters locations, organizational structure, etc.
  • Client roster and experience
  • Key senior agency personnel and backgrounds

Specific agency capabilities relevant to the marketer. Ask the agency to specify which capabilities are available through the office that might directly service the account and which through affiliated offices, sister agencies or alliances.

  • For advertising: account service, creative, media planning, media buying, strategic planning and research. Also consider any key specialties required (e.g., ethnic targeting, direct response television buying, business-to-business) or relative skill levels by medium (e.g., to pinpoint an agency that does great work in print).
  • For other integrated marketing resources: direct marketing, public relations, promotion and event marketing, Internet, Yellow Pages, etc.

The agency's strategic approach to its client's problems. This often involves requesting case studies that demonstrate the agency's ability to tackle and contribute to marketing challenges similar to those of the marketer. Be very specific. For example, if a package goods food marketer simply asks for agencies' experience with food advertising, they will likely get a range of very broad "generic" responses. There is greater benefit in requesting cases with a high degree of relevance to the marketer's own issues - e.g., the successful repositioning of an older brand to reach a more contemporary audience, or marketing a number three or number four brand with fewer resources than the leading competitor.

Balance the number of case studies requested against the time necessary to evaluate them. Three to five case study requests can usually cover the most important issues. Some marketers put limits on the amount of space the agency can devote to each - e.g., no more than three pages each.

The agency's creative product. Request current examples of the agency's work relevant to the marketer's interests. Specify the format that most easily allows the review team to evaluate and, if need be, copy the work for others to see - e.g., video format, size of printed materials, online format, etc.

Research can provide a reasonable amount of information, but it often does not provide the kind of detail the marketer needs to make an informed judgment on which agencies are most qualified for further investigation. For that purpose, a questionnaire is quite helpful. Often referred to as an RFP (Request for Proposal), a more accurate term is Request for Information (RFI).

The information sought on the agency's capabilities and experience should be relevant to the client's needs as outlined in the job description. More efficient than conducting face-to-face meetings with a large number of candidates, the questionnaire allows the marketer to confirm and expand on data already obtained, as well as to dig for more detailed, pertinent and up-to-date information.

Example I




 


Who Gets the Questionnaire?

With screening criteria tightly defined, the marketer should be able to zero in on a workable group of 10-20 agencies that appear to offer the right credentials. Sometimes, the marketer's criteria are so stringent that only a small list of potentially qualified agencies meet the basic screening criteria. A larger number of candidates usually indicates that the job description and screening criteria are too loose. In that case, you might want to further limit the geographical location or agency size or to expand the requirements of the type of experience desired. With proper review and evaluation of an agency questionnaire taking up to two hours or more, multiplying 20 agency responses by, say, six members of a review team reinforces the need to keep the list manageable.

The questionnaire should be sent to the agency's designated new business contact, usually available on their website or by calling the agency. Larger agencies may designate an individual to handle new business functions; at smaller agencies this task is likely handled by someone with other client and management responsibilities (often the President or CEO).

It's worth a call to the new business contact ahead of time to confirm that the agency is indeed interested in pursuing the account. An agency might have conflicts with other clients that were not apparent during initial research or may not want to work on certain types of business. Some larger agencies will not pursue new business if the client budget is too small. Assuming that the marketer has a tight fix on the scope of work and compensation budget, it makes sense to share that information with the agencies. At a minimum, it is worth informing the agencies of the approximate advertising spending level (media and production).

And if the marketer has a preferred method of compensation, you should communicate that now. Although most agencies will work with either fee or commission, some may not be willing to work for a reduced commission (under 15%), depending on your company's spending level. It's better to find this out early on, so that the agency can exclude itself and not waste anyone's time.

Blind Questionnaires

Marketers looking to fill an assignment with a very high degree of confidentiality may choose to issue a blind questionnaire, one that doesn't specify either the marketer or the assignment. That's easily accomplished when using a search consultant; other options include the use of a third-party mailing address or post office box. A major downside of a blind questionnaire is the inability of the agencies to respond in as precise and relevant a way to the marketer's inquiries. Also, some agencies are suspicious of blind questionnaires and may choose not to participate, limiting the marketer's options.

Including the Incumbent Agency?

The marketer needs to be honest about whether the incumbent agency truly has a chance to retain the business before agreeing to their inclusion at this (or any) stage of the search process. In situations where the client-agency relationship is damaged beyond repair, it is a waste of time and effort on both sides to involve the incumbent in the review out of some misguided sense of professional courtesy.

There are several circumstances where including the incumbent might make sense:

  • For federal and state government assignments, where there is usually a legal requirement to conduct periodic reviews, the incumbent can certainly be considered - and, in most cases, will have the right to re-compete for the business based on government contracting guidelines.
  • Also, certain associations or franchise groups may have similar requirements for periodic reviews, even if the relationship with the incumbent is considered good.
  • Finally, a marketer who has grown or evolved beyond its original needs might feel obliged to consider other agency resources, but still want to give the incumbent a chance to prove itself in the new situation.

Evaluating Questionnaire Responses

At this point, the marketer should devise a format to help the review team evaluate agency responses. This tool, regardless of how designed, should (a) mirror the content of the questionnaire and the responses requested of the agencies, and (b) allow the team to grade the agencies on the criteria deemed most important in the job description.

When the review team is large, numeric grading can be helpful, although it should always be accompanied by a rationale for the grade. Regardless of the method used, each agency's response should be evaluated using the same criteria, the same scoring method and the same reviewers.

Example 2



 


Selecting an Advertising Agency

The amount of time provided for agencies to respond will depend on the client's needs and on how much information is being requested. When case studies are involved, it is prudent to give the agency at least a couple of weeks. This allows the potential for a more thorough and relevant response - which in turn allows for a more effective evaluation.

Selecting a Short List

A thorough evaluation of the questionnaire responses will ideally result in a short list of agencies that appear worth a visit for in-depth review - perhaps 4-8 out of 10-20. The marketer should notify both the short list of agencies and the ones passed over as soon as possible after the questionnaire evaluation is completed. A phone call to the agencies' new business contacts, followed by a formal letter of confirmation achieves the purpose simply enough.

 

Source

Selecting an Advertising Agency. Stanley Beals and David Beals. New York: ANA, 2002.