Peter Barber
Executive VP, Business and Account Development

9 Tips for Creating a Great RFP

Find the right fit partner for your organization's needs.

As a full-service marketing agency, Lipman Hearne receives a lot of RFPs. Some are wonderful, providing us with a clear perspective of what the client sees as their primary marketing problem and how they believe an agency like ours can help. The best examples, probably reflecting 10% of the RFPs we’re presented with, come from all sorts of places – big associations and universities, small nonprofits, and everything in between. Many appear to have been written by someone who fully understands how both clients and agencies can best work together. I often find out later that the author, like me, has experience on both the client and agency sides of the marketing business, providing them with a broader perspective to work with.

Unfortunately, a good number of the RFPs we run into are fairly weak. They lack clarity in defining the problem to be solved, and in how they foresee our agency helping their organizations improve. These account for about 20% of the RFPs we receive, and just like the better ones, these come from all sorts of organizations – small ones, big ones, public ones, you name it.

This isn’t that surprising. While we agency people work with and review RFPs often on a daily basis, most client-side marketing people only have a need to do so every two to four years, if that. They typically aren’t exposed to RFPs from outside of their own organizations. Some may be developing RFPs for areas of work that are still new to them, or are doing so for organizations that they themselves are new to and are still learning how to discuss the challenges of.

Having a strong RFP is the first and most important step in hiring a strong agency partner that is right for you and your organization. Written well and used properly, your RFP will become your most powerful tool for finding an agency that can help you strengthen your brand, bolster membership or enrollment, or raise precious fundraising dollars. A strong RFP guides your potential agency partners in effectively bringing forward solutions that align with your organization’s priorities, so you can hire the perfect fit.

I’m often asked for advice by people who are starting to draft their own RFPs, so I thought I’d share my top tips for making your next RFP as clear and as powerful as it can be. In some ways, developing a strong RFP is like preparing for a successful event – smart planning and good organization will lead to a great time for all involved.

1. Look outside your organization.
While it’s smart to take a look at your organization’s past RFPs as a starting point, don’t stop there. It’s likely that those old RFPs have both good and bad points, and you’ll want your new effort to be all in on the “good” side. Reach out to marketing peers at organizations similar to your own, and ask if they will share examples of recent RFPs that they consider strong. Most nonprofit marketers will gladly do so, even if they don’t know you that well. And the same thing with agencies – reach out to a few you’re familiar with, and ask if they can share some examples confidentially. Most agency business development leads will be happy to oblige.

2. Clarify the agency’s role and your/your team’s role in the ultimate work to be completed.
The best RFPs we receive lay out specifically what the client is looking for the agency to do, as well as the roles they expect their teams to handle internally. This allows your potential agency partners to focus on exactly what you want, so they won’t irritate you by proposing they handle work you already have covered. And don’t worry about this approach being too limiting – if one of your responding agencies really wants to challenge your role definitions, they will (and you may choose to encourage that, if you’re truly welcoming of alternative considerations. If you’re not, then you’ll know that the “challenging” agency probably isn’t the right one for you and your organization).

3. Encourage dialogue, not just questions.
Even well written RFPs will raise questions and ideas from your potential agency partners, and email alone is NOT the best way of handling these. We love it when prospective clients invite us to schedule an individual time to speak with them about our questions. This not only provides each agency with the answers and insights they’re looking for, but it also provides you with an initial perspective on what each agency team’s personality is like. If you enjoy speaking with one or two of their people on the phone for 30 minutes, you will probably enjoy working with them. If the 30 minutes seem more like a painful hour spent talking to your friend’s weird cousin at a party, pretty good odds they’re not the right fit for you.

4. Timing.
Just as it takes time to write a smart RFP, it takes time to develop a powerful response, one customized to address the interests of your organization. In order to get the best responses possible, the best clients give their prospective agencies at least three full business weeks to respond (and never less than two weeks). And this means three full business weeks, not two weeks plus Thanksgiving week or Memorial Day weekend. Demanding a too-quick response sends a message to potential agencies that you don’t really care about their time, or that your organization started the RFP process late and is now in rush mode to find a new partner. Neither situation gets an agency excited about potentially working with you.

5. Show me the money.
The best RFPs provide potential agencies with a reasonable idea of what you’re likely to invest in the assignment and the agency relationship. I know some organizations are hesitant to do this; they feel they have more leverage by keeping agencies in the dark about their budget plans. In reality, sharing a budget range puts the client in even greater control. You eliminate spending time with potential partners that will charge way more than you can afford. You’ll ensure that all competing agencies are in the same budget ballpark, allowing for a true apples-to-apples comparison of what each will be providing for similar investments. And you’ll still find that many of the proposal submissions you receive will be under your budget limits, as some agencies will position themselves as the value option for your consideration.

6. Partner with your procurement and legal partners from the start.
Most larger organizations will require some involvement from their procurement or legal teams in the RFP process, and most of those procurement and legal people are not regularly involved with purchasing decisions for marketing services. They’ve got the process down for buying chairs, paint, and computer equipment. But brand strategy? That’s a very different purchasing process. They’ll need your help in understanding why your RFP needs will be different than most of the other ones they support.

Involve your legal or procurement partners in your RFP early on, and help them understand what you’re looking to accomplish. Most will be more helpful than you might think, especially if they’re brought in at the beginning. And many will even help you identify ways of getting your most important marketing direction and guidance front and center in the RFP, rather than buried within the dozens of pages of legal requirements that some organizations demand be included in each and every RFP.

7. Managing your agency invitation list.
Once your RFP is completed, you’ve got to get it distributed. And like most events, if you invite too many people to participate it gets too hot, too crowded, and no one has a good time. Forego that initial thought of sending your new RFP to every agency you can think of. Instead, investigate agencies that have the experience you require, and that work with organizations similar in size and mission to yours. Prepare a list of the agencies you think have what it takes to help you accomplish your goals. There are plenty of ways to do this. You can ask peers from other organizations you respect about whose doing their marketing work. You can attend industry conferences to meet agency representatives in the exhibit halls (many great opportunities are sponsored by AMA, ASAE, AAM, CASE, GMAC, and other associations). You can do your own Google searching to see whose doing noteworthy and award-winning work. Any marketing agency that is a strong player should have a robust website that provides case studies and examples of past client work for you to consider.

In assembling your agency invitation list, work toward inviting just six to eight competitors into your RFP response plans (and never more than ten). That allows you to have a more limited set of screened and fully engaged participants who will all see themselves with a reasonable chance of winning your assignment. Things change when an organization insists on inviting 20+ agencies to submit responses – the best potential partners for you may choose not to participate because they have better odds of success elsewhere. And realistically, you and your team don’t have the time to thoughtfully review dozens of agency RFP responses and still meet your decision deadlines. You think you do, but you don’t.

Once you receive your RFP responses from the initial group, you’ll want to cut your agency list down to just two or three finalists for in-person discussions, and then make your final selection.

8. Handling public RFP postings.
If you’re a government-funded organization with public bidding requirements, you may need to post your RFP online. As a result you’ll probably get far more responses than you might like – some from qualified agencies, some from newer companies seeking success, and certainly a few from less talented agencies you probably don’t want to work with. Nevertheless, even with a publicly posted RFP, you can still invite specific agencies to view the posting and respond – otherwise they might not know about your RFP until it’s too late. Doing so in advance of your posting going live is usually in line with procurement office guidelines.

9. Establish decision-making criteria, and include that in your RFP.
Too many organizations don’t think about this until after the RFP has been issued, and that’s a huge mistake. Decide early on what critical factors will be used in selecting your new agency partner, and communicate those to both the agencies competing for your work and to your internal teammates participating in the selection process. You want everyone to judge your agency candidates on the same criteria, and you want your potential agencies to know that they are all being treated fairly and consistently.


We hope these tips work for you. And please share any tips of your own with us, so we can continue to learn and improve as well.