No More RFPs: A Better Way to Hire a Marketing Agency


Ditch the Website Agency RFP for a More Personal Approach

Nearly everyone I talk to in the marketing industry agrees, whether they are on the agency side or the client side, that they would avoid the RFP process if they could. For agencies, it’s costly and distracting. For clients, it’s time-consuming, draining, and still carries plenty of risk. And yet we continue to do it, because it’s the way it’s always been done, and because nobody has ever shown us a better way. Well, today I’d like to make a case for a better way to hire a marketing agency.

The biggest problems with RFPs

They take a lot of time. You want all of the relevant stakeholders in your company to chime in, but doing that right takes a lot of time. After multiple meetings, multiple emails, multiple versions, and multiple edits, you might end up with an RFP that everyone is happy with. And that’s to say nothing about the time it takes to review the proposals once they come in. When all is said and done, you’ll have spent a lot of time on the RFP process, instead of spending time on the project itself.

The best firms don’t participate. Elite web development firms don’t always respond to RFPs. They put a lot of work into their pitches, so they only pitch to clients who have specifically sought them out for their expertise. That means that if you decide to go the RFP route, you risk having only second-rate talent respond.

You could make enemies. Sending out an RFP could damage current relationships and hinder new ones. Perhaps it’s unsportsmanlike, but firms who don’t get your business may hold a grudge, especially if they aren’t given a clear reason why (or if they don’t hear from you at all).

The “staged one-way conversation.” Perhaps the biggest problem with the traditional RFP process is that it removes the opportunity for you to have a human, two-way conversation with your potential vendor, in which you might actually be able to determine mutual fit. Instead, what you get is a series of highly polished, carefully rehearsed presentations in which each party showcases themselves in the best possible light. Because of this, you could end up hiring the vendor with the best presentation skills, but not necessarily the best vendor for the job.

As you can see, RFPs set you up for a time-consuming process that often ends with a subpar vendor relationship. If you want to increase your chances of finding a partner that’s actually a good fit, I suggest following a process more like the one below:

A better way to hire a web development agency

At Skyhook, we believe that hiring a website vendor should be pretty similar to your process for hiring a full-time employee. Different companies may have different approaches, but in general the process should look something like this.

  1. Get clear about where you are and where you want to be. Where do you want your company to be in 3 years? How big will it be? What markets will it serve? What products/services will it offer? In order to achieve that vision, what do you already have going for you, and where will you need help from an outside partner?
  2. Determine the value. What would it be worth to you if someone could assure you success on the path you have outlined? What would it be worth to have your website problems go away, or to fully seize an opportunity? What kind of difference would this project make in terms of your profit or impact? If this project is going to significantly improve your business’s bottom line, it’s definitely worth investing in. You should know the value of the project before you proceed with the hiring process.
  3. Make a preliminary list of potential agencies. Create a list of 10-15 possible agencies you might consider working with. Include vendors you’ve enjoyed working with in the past, referrals from people you trust, Google search results, or companies you’ve seen on social media.
  4. Screen their resumes. Think of each vendor’s website as their “resume.” That’s the best place to get a feel for their skill level, size, style, and process. Look specifically for any areas they specialize in, and take a close look at their experience and portfolio. Beyond that, does it seem like their company culture would fit with yours? Are they a Honda when you’re looking for a Maserati (or vice versa)? You’re not just looking for a “good” agency; you’re looking for the “right” agency. This screening should help you narrow your pool considerably (ideally to 2-3 candidates).
  5. Set up interviews. When you’re hiring an employee, it’s important to meet with them face-to-face to have a two-way conversation that’s productive and enlightening. The same is true when you’re hiring a web agency. Schedule an in-person meeting to talk about your project, to get their input, and to give them an opportunity to ask questions. During the interview process, be honest. Tell the firms you interview about your desired future state, your goals for the website, the potential value you’ve uncovered, your metrics for determining that value, and anything else they need to know. Be upfront and as honest as possible. Remember: you’re looking for a partner who can help you achieve your goals, not a cheap option that will hurry through the work. BONUS: Check out our handy interview guide for tips on what questions to ask and a helpful scorecard.
  6. Ask your favorite for a few different price options. Ideally you’ve narrowed it down to 1 firm at this point, but certainly no more than 2-3. Tell your front runner that you like them and that you’d like to find a way to work together, but you need to know what the engagement would look like. Ask them to give you a couple of different options for how you might work together. Tell them what you like about them (so they can play to their strengths), and what you’re concerned about (so they can reassure you, if needed). Tell them not to spend too much time on the formality of the proposal, but to come with some bullet points you can discuss/negotiate together.
  7. Negotiate a statement of work. Talk through the pros/cons of the various options your firm has presented, and help them zero in on what you want and what you don’t, and what you expect to pay. At this point, you should be in full agreement in concept, and all that’s left is for them to write up a statement of work for you to sign.

In summary, Just say no to RFPs.

An RFP involves a lot of risk. It’s not worth spending time and effort on something that will likely get you a disappointing result. Take the time you would have spent on a website RFP, and spend it instead on strategic research, hearing pitches, and having intelligent, mutual conversations with potential web partners. It may not be the way you’ve always done it, but it’s much more likely to get you the results you want.