Rethinking the Digital Agency RFP Process: Collaboration Is Key

Sonya Moré  

June 05, 2014

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Businesses of all types are struggling to figure out how to reshape their digital experiences to better engage customers and drive business success. As a result, we at EXTRACTABLE are seeing an uptick in RFPs distributed by companies looking for the right digital agency to help them.

While EXTRACTBLE does receive its fair share of these RFPs, we're finding that the traditional RFP process isn't the most effective or logical way to choose a digital agency. Specifically, we feel it's critical that the digital strategy, plan and budget are not set in stone before bringing on the agency. In this brave, new - and constantly evolving - world of digital marketing communications, many businesses may think they know what they need and go down the road in one direction, only to find out that their newly engaged agency would have recommended a different, more effective approach if they'd had a chance. When strategies and budgets are already locked down, everyone's hands are tied, and the client may not get the results their company desires.

Locked-in decisions can affect the long-term bottom line
Many times businesses make decisions about digital marketing based on what they think they already know, which undermines strategic planning. This makes the RFP process challenging for agencies, especially data-driven agencies like EXTRACTABLE. We make recommendations to a client based on research and data specific to that client. It's what powers the strategy and the execution, and it's why our clients reap measurable business value from our work. Without the right data, you won't know how to reach potential customers in the most effective ways, or how to provide a personalized experience that can be key to moving prospects through a sales funnel.

The problem with traditional RFPs
RFPs are a normal part of many companies' search for a new vendor, a process mandated by procurement departments that often have rigid requirements. But choosing the right digital services agency isn't like making a simple off-the-shelf product purchase decision. It requires conversation and dialogue to see if the two organizations can form a productive working partnership. It requires asking experts - before signing off on a final plan - what they think your business should be doing and why.

Here are some issues with the traditional RFP process:

  • There's very little flexibility with traditional RFPs, which can quash more innovative approaches and cause many companies to overlook or fail to consider a lot of great digital communication opportunities.
  • To quantify deliverables and get apples-to-apples estimates from agencies, business problems and solutions are predefined in a traditional RFP. But what if your assumptions were wrong from the get-go?
  • There's not a lot of room in the traditional RFP process to engage agencies as consultative experts along the way. More often, there's a big brick wall between client and agency - prohibiting the input, suggestions, ideas, research and analysis that comprise the value an agency brings to the table in the first place. 

Missed opportunities
These are just some examples of opportunities businesses might miss when developing an RFP, ultimately resulting in their losing out on some serious ROI.

  • Content audit to determine effectiveness of existing content
  • Tools for creating new content, including content strategy, content models, calendars and style guides
  • User surveys
  • Usability testing
  • Content migration plans
  • KPI frameworks
  • Analytics benchmarking and measurement plans
  • Platform selection process with facilitated requirements gathering and ranking
  • Localization and globalization strategy
  • Personalization strategy and tactics
  • Search engine optimization 

In an ideal world
RFPs aren't going away, but we can definitely make the process better for digital agencies and, more importantly, for businesses. Here are some ideas to think about:

  • Start by issuing an RFP, but also engage partners early on who can help you think through all the considerations, requirements, information and questions you haven't yet addressed. Perhaps at the Q&A phase, open it up for agencies to give recommendations on how to reshape the RFP itself. This will go a long way in ensuring you receive thoughtful, strategic, well-developed proposals from serious agencies capable of doing the actual work. It will also give you a preview of how the agencies think and communicate.
  • Share your budget and other information that an agency needs to create a successful proposal, such as requirements and expectations. Keeping the agency in the dark about important aspects of your business prevents them from developing a holistic strategy that captures all of your needs.
  • Upon choosing your agency partner, be open to hearing and considering new ideas that weren't put forth in the RFP.
  • Be receptive to taking a fresh look at your existing customer research or to doing additional research that will inform a more successful digital strategy.
  • Consider the larger digital strategy versus focusing on ad hoc projects. A good agency will take several steps back to develop an overarching recommendation from which you can prioritize projects to execute in phases and as budget permits.

How this new approach to RFPs can benefit you - quantifiably
We all know that brand managers and CMOs everywhere are now being held accountable for meeting KPIs and showing quantifiable results. Data-driven strategies for all of your digital communications, from your website to mobile to apps, are essential to achieving your business goals. By taking the time during the RFP process to tap digital agencies' expertise, such as how to best mine and apply data to develop effective strategies, you are setting yourself up to be able to demonstrate quantifiable results that will resonate with the C-suite.

While those RFPs can be annoying, they do start the process to a largely important relationship. And truly, a business's digital success or failure frequently stems from the RFP process and the decisions that come out of it.

If you currently are writing an RFP and considering EXTRACTABLE, we would love to partner with you in an open process to help develop the final version. Please email us at