Here’s step-by-step advice on how to make sure your next RFP works for you—not against you.
By Jim Elliott
A Request for Proposal or RFP can be a wonderful tool to ensure that association publishers find the best sales representation. However, if handled incorrectly, RFPs can have very negative effects on the search process.
A new advertising rep firm will be your public face in the industry. As such, this is a critical decision, and based on trends in media, this relationship will become more important as associations bundle their assets together—which advertisers are demanding at this point.
Some RFPs reflect a well-thought-out strategy and an understanding of the factors that are essential to a healthy long-term relationship between a publisher and a sales organization. In these situations, two-way communication occurs up front so that both parties’ interests are explored. The need for complex selling and bundling of items into packages means a lot of information must be shared in both directions.
On the other hand, many RFPs are counterproductive and send the wrong signals. They are more appropriate for use by a purchasing department whose mission is to get the lowest price on a product. Two-way communication is often discouraged, and very little essential information about the publishing operation is shared. For instance, they do not identify the current revenues or highlight trending information. Often, they are not clear on their actual needs.
Here are some things to be careful of:
- Limiting access for questions and discussions to someone in your association who doesn’t have an understanding of the industry. Inadequate communication and non-specific answers cause confusion among bidders.
- Ignoring size differences. There is a big difference between rep firms just like there is in any industry: One size does not fit all.
- Adhering steadfastly to the RFP process—no matter what. If the questions asked are not open-ended enough to accommodate alternatives, the RFP may screen out better solutions.
- Obviously wasting time on both sides. Some of the most detailed, complicated RFPs are submitted by organizations that have no intention of considering a new outsourced relationship, but have a mandate to look for alternatives every "nth” year.
- Demanding confidential financial data. Almost all publishers’ representative firms, from smaller regional firms to full-service national firms, are privately held. Most of the better firms will not share this information, and it is unreasonable to expect them to.
A much better approach is to do some research—find a few good firms and have the association’s publisher or executive director engage with top management of those firms before creating the RFP. This can help ensure the publication’s sourcing strategy is compatible with the capabilities of a typical firm and also help ensure that the questions are asked in such a way that the information submitted will be relevant to the publisher’s specific needs.
Before preparing your RFP, ask these questions:
- Can we remove any obstacles in our current or intended organizational structure which could prevent us from achieving maximum revenues (e.g., restrictive territory contracts which would prevent the association from launching nationwide category initiatives)?
- Do we need a rep firm that can adapt to our systems, or do we plan to adapt to their systems?
- Do we have an understanding of how rep firms are set up, how they make money, and how a vertical vs. horizontal structure can impact our business?
- Because a sales representative’s offices will also serve as your publication’s field offices, is it important to us that their location conveys a certain image?
- Are we willing to make a trip to visit the finalists’ offices so that we can see their facilities and examine the systems they have in place?
Next, be sure your RFP contains questions like the following:
- "What are your hiring policies and what behavior do you expect from your employees?”
- "Have your former employees ever sued you?”
- "Are you financially sound and able to weather a downturn? What is your Dun & Bradstreet rating? How long have you been in business? Do you have established banking relationships?”
- "Does a big player dominate the firm? What happens if that big player goes away?”
- "Does the rep firm have a history of adapting to new systems and technologies?”
- "Does the rep firm have adequate marketing resources, such as SRDS, advertising databases, and research capabilities, etc.?”
- And, if billing is required, "What software does the firm use (MAS 90 or something off the shelf like QuickBooks)?”
Writing a great RFP doesn't have to be difficult. Adding a dose of common sense to the template above, your association's next RFP should yield the kind of information you need to make an informed decision.
Jim Elliott is president of James G. Elliott, Inc. and a member of Association Media & Publishing.