The Ad Agency RFI: How Marketers Should Structure Requests So Both Agency and Client Benefit

June 19, 2017

Contributed by Greg Straface, SVP of Business Development at PJA Advertising + Marketing

How to structure your RFI for the right advertising agency

Over the past year, an unprecedented number of advertising agency reviews took place in our business, including McDonald's, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, L'Oréal, and Coca-Cola. A July Wall Street Journal article that included research from 'Advertiser Perceptions,' a research firm that provides advertiser insights to media companies, found the trend of accounts being put into review will continue to rise. In a study researching how marketers feel about their agencies, Advertiser Perceptions discovered that 58% of respondents plan to put their agencies into review over the next 12 months. Additionally, a separate study by Worldwide Partners, an independent network of advertising agencies, found that 88% of reviews will be handled directly by marketers without the help of an agency review consultant.

While many of the world's largest brands conduct agency reviews with the assistance of review consultants, many more elect to handle agency reviews on their own. With that in mind, marketers conducting their own reviews should consider how they structure their Requests for Information (RFIs) so that both agency and marketer have the necessary information to evaluate the opportunity at hand. This way each of them can make the decision to participate based on budget allotment, specialty marketing needs, segment specialty, etc.

Many marketers who handle their own agency reviews have a tendency to go straight to agencies sharing capabilities and developing creative spec for their reviews. However, taking the time to incorporate an initial RFI stage will help them quickly winnow agencies that won't participate in the next round of review (e.g. in person capabilities, creative spec) and will save the marketer, as well as the agency, time and money by seeing if the remaining agencies meet the criteria you're seeking in a partner.

Having participated in, and responded to, hundreds of RFIs over the last 25 years – across both large public agencies and small/mid-sized independent ones – I can share some thoughts about what clients need to include in an initial RFI to help both the client and agency evaluate each other.

What's the Purpose of an RFI?

As you put together your RFI, think of it as a way of collecting the most pertinent information about the agencies you will consider and a way of narrowing down who you'd like to participate – and just as importantly, where they may fall short as an agency partner. This is not a stage for having agencies do custom thinking around an assignment, but to clarify if they're a good match. An RFI is particularly important if you're not familiar with the agency landscape and their various backgrounds.

The following points offer a general outline of what might be the most pertinent information and questions to include in an RFI for an ad agency review:

Marketer Provided Background Information:

An Introduction to the Assignment

In this section the marketer should communicate a basic overview of who the organization is, what products and services it offers, what it is looking to accomplish with an agency partner, and the capabilities they are seeking in an agency.

Current Challenges of the Organization

Here you should provide some background of the overall challenges of your organization: Lack of brand awareness, driving demand generation, inconsistent messaging, brand positioning, etc.

Agency Selection Timeline and Budget

Because agencies are time-constrained with existing client work and pitches, it's very important to provide the agency with a timeline for reaching a final decision. It's also very important that there's a good match between the client budget and the size of the agency. In this case it's very important to provide the agencies with a budget that is reflective of the 'all-in' costs for the assignment. In many cases the agency will eliminate itself from contention for budget alone, saving you the time of having to review an RFI submission and the agency taking the time to pull its answers together. It's a win-win when you provide a budget.

List the Most Important Competitors to Your Organization

Providing prospective agencies with a list of your competitors allows them to better understand who you compete with and if they have any conflicts.

Agency Relevant Qualifications and Selection Criteria

Using a list of bullet points, provide what you think are the relevant qualifications and criteria you'll be looking at to shortlist agencies. For example:

Significant, relevant BtoB experience

Demonstrated ability to create campaigns that are differentiators in the market

Strong strategic and analytic capabilities

Experience working in complex markets

Technology and healthcare segment experience

Demonstrated experience integrating earned, paid and owned media channels

Agencies will be quick to see how they stack up against the selection criteria and qualifications. And depending on whether they see a match, they'll hopefully self-select themselves into or out of the process.

Information Requested/Questions for Agencies:

General Agency Information

Name of the agency, address, city, state, web site address, ownership (independent or public) and the main contact you'll be dealing with on a daily basis including title, email and best number(s) to reach them.

Provide the Agency's Mission

Have the agency provide a paragraph or two focused on what their position in the marketplace is relevant to other agencies, so you can see how they differentiate themselves from the pack.

Client List: Current and Past Relevant Experience

Have the agencies provide a list of current clients including the number of years that each one has been with the agency, what the billings for the client are, and the services they provide that client (fully integrated or specific services). Additionally, have the agency list out separately any specifically relevant experience, including a statement about why it's relevant to your needs and how it relates.

Recent Client Wins and Losses

Having a sense of what business agencies have added or lost over the last couple years can provide a sense of how the agency is doing. Keep in mind that in today's agency world, many clients have gone to a project-based approach, so it might make sense to have agencies list why they lost a piece of business. It might be it was just project based vs. an agency of record relationship, and therefore short-term by definition.

Agency Team and Core Team Bios

Have agencies list the number of employees at the location you are reaching out to and the breakdown of employees by department. It might be helpful to also have them list other office locations to get a sense of what their geographic capabilities are, and how that might help you with other needs. Finally, have the agency include short bios of who your core team members might be so you can get a sense who you might be working with, and what experience they might have.

Agency Services

A short, but simple request – have agencies list the core services they provide to their clients. You might be pleasantly surprised that the agency provides services beyond what you're looking for now, but could use in the future.

Relevant Case Studies

Based upon the client selection criteria and qualifications that have been provided in the background section, have the agency share no less than three relevant case studies. Each case study should showcase the challenge, insight, solution and results they achieved. This is probably the most important section for both the client and agency, as it is a way to evaluate the strategic thinking, creative firepower and results the agency can bring to your organization.

Of course, each organization will have its own approach to building an RFI. What I'm suggesting here is a starting point. Keep in mind as you review the RFI submissions, you also have the opportunity to visit each agency's website to gain more insight about the company. I've had a number of conversations prior to receiving an RFI in which the prospective client wants to learn more about the agency, but never took the time to visit the agency website to get a sense of who the agency is, the positioning, clients they work with, or the work they've developed. It's a small step but a great starting point to see who you might want to have on your RFI.


"The Ad Agency RFI: How Marketers Should Structure Requests So Both Agency and Client Benefit." Greg Straface, SVP of Business Development at PJA Advertising + Marketing, originally published 10/18/16.

You must be logged in to submit a comment.