Do you ever wake up from one of those dreams where something so splendid has happened and it feels so real that once you realize you are in fact awake, you wonder if you can fall back asleep fast enough to go back to Perfect Land forever? I have those dreams sometimes about PPC (it’s ok, you can call me a nerd, I can handle it) and most recently my greatest wish is that RFPs (Request for Proposals) for PPC didn’t exist.

From the client’s perspective, I realize most of the time the entire reason for the RFP in the first place is because it’s some kind of corporate or company requirement. Even so, are there ways for you to be certain you’re getting the most accurate and necessary information from each participating agency? Absolutely.

On the agency side of the discussion, RFPs have the tendency (not always) to be fairly granular and extensive, so at what point is the potential win worth the time or effort to even get a meeting with the prospective client? Sometimes you do have to say no, but when you say yes – how do you most effectively participate to ensure a spot in the final selection process?

If You’re The Client

As previously mentioned, the first step in knowing whether an RFP for a potential new agency is worth it is to find out if it’s a necessity. If it is – the one thing that doesn’t matter is whether you want to go down the RFP path, because gaining responses from multiple teams before the selection takes place is a requirement. In most situations, however, you will have the opportunity to help tailor the RFP in a way that makes the responses as useful to your team as possible.

When building the RFP document, make sure you don’t just jump to asking questions of the prospective agencies. You’ll want to provide background on your company and the current state of your paid search efforts, as it will allow the agencies to illustrate the most appropriate capabilities and strategies for your needs. If you don’t need an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach, don’t waste your own time by having to sift through an encyclopedia of information that’s irrelevant to your accounts.

If at all possible, keep the members of your team who directly handle or deal with paid search involved throughout the RFP process. Occasionally a procurement manager or someone from a company’s administrative office will handle requests and responses, which can cause quite the disconnect between what your brand needs and what they’ll receive from participating agencies. This is especially important if account analysis isn’t available at this stage for the participating agencies to pull information from on their own. Certainly it’s not abnormal to keep that step for later in the process, but in those cases it is then crucial to have the right team members involved to elicit the best responses.

Allow for a Q&A portion of the RFP timeline, wherein the agencies who have been invited to participate can ask for clarifying details. Again, in the spirit of making sure you get the most qualified responses and agencies participating – it could be somewhat of a red flag if you have an agency that elects to provide a response but asks no additional questions before preparing their documents. Adding this step to your overall process may add a few days to the full timeline, but it can help weed out agencies that are not the best fit and further ensure you get responses that fulfill your expectations.

Speaking of expectations, know that the detail of your RFP responses will likely mimic the detail in the RFP itself. For example, if you ask broader strokes-type questions (i.e. “How does your team approach market expansion?”) you’re probably going to see responses that are more 30,000-foot view approaches to PPC management. On the other hand, if you straight out ask how the agency approaches remarketing audience segmentation, you can expect to see specifics on potential different audiences for your brand, cookie lengths, messaging recommendations, etc. Also, don’t be afraid to directly dictate when/where in your RFP you want specific versus overview responses.

Finally, as you move through the RFP process, make sure the timeline is very clear and that you provide updates to the participants. This may sound like it’s heavily serving the agencies, but trust me – they will pester you if you said they would hear about next steps on day X and then they don’t. If there has been a delay (and there almost always is), simply extend a quick message and let them know you either moved the date(s) back or that the timeline is changing and you’ll have to be in touch with more detail as it becomes available.

If You’re The Agency

On the other side of the RFP equation are the potential agency partners, and we want to help everyone get better! So what can you do as a prospective or current participant to aid in a smooth process?

First and foremost, do your own vetting of the RFP and company before you get started. The reason being that sometimes, brands reach out to agencies to that aren’t actually the best fit and you owe it to them to do your own due diligence to make sure they’ve reached out to you for the right reasons. For example, if the company in question is asking for PPC and SEO coverage and you don’t offer both – you should bring it up sooner rather than later and uncover if it’s acceptable to possibly need a second agency to fill the out-of-scope capabilities. Especially in a situation where the brand needs to receive responses from a set number of participants, finding out early if you can participate at all is key.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to say no if perhaps you could fill the needs of the prospective client but the overall opportunity isn’t a good fit (budget size, communication needs, etc.). An example here may be if the budget is in the 4-figure range but the client wants weekly calls, which wouldn’t be typical of your client services at that size. You could very well get through the first round and in to the winner’s bracket to move forward, but if at the end of the day you’ll wind up negotiating the opportunity away it isn’t in anyone’s best interest to participate in the first place.

Both of those points lead me to the next one, which may be the most important from the agency perspective when handling RFPs – ask questions! Lots of them! In cases where all the company contacts are kept behind closed doors at the onset, you may be learning something about the clarity you’ll have as that team’s agency in the future (aka: maybe it wouldn’t be the greatest). That said, though, most RFPs allow for a Q&A time period and you should take full advantage. Hopefully you’ve received a fairly comprehensive RFP document to start with, but really dig in and find out some additional key details that could help you produce more client-specific content in your response where applicable. Oftentimes, the client will also send out a full list of all agency questions and answers but don’t assume someone else will ask your questions for you (it’s better to double up and let the client sort it out than to be left with unanswered questions!).

Not only in an effort to be as time efficient as possible, but also to make sure you’re properly addressing the topics requested in any RFP, try to get the potential account management team on your side involved. Just as having procurement managers handle RFP processes isn’t the best idea for a company looking for a new agency, you can’t and shouldn’t expect your sales team to compile all the details of specific PPC tactics if they’re requested. Not only could you leave yourself on the chopping block by not providing the right level of information, but in a lot of cases it’s simpler or easier for a PPC manager to answer those questions, cutting down the time needed to prepare the response in it’s entirety.

Lastly, pay attention to the content of the RFP and respond appropriately. A good client can smell a boilerplate RFP response from a mile away, so while I’m not encouraging you to build every single response 100% from scratch each time…I am encouraging you to provide customized answers and client-specific details where they’re necessary. I’ve never once deleted or thrown out or not kept a copy of any RFP response I’ve ever competed in. I admittedly don’t often get to go back and pull large chunks of them for new ones, but reviewing them while in the midst of prepping a new response can help conjure up ideas or even just get the creative ball rolling with starting responses.

Now you tell us! If you’re on the client side (or working in-house), how does your team approach the RFP process? And if you’re working in an agency atmosphere – how do you tackle responding to RFPs you receive?

Share your thoughts and ideas with us in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!