Are you just about to dust off a Request For Proposal (RFP) that you used three years ago? Think again.
In order to make sure you find a digital marketing agency that delivers the project completely and to your full specifications, it’s time to think more creatively.
There are many advantages to putting in this legwork well before the RFP invitation is to be mailed out.

A successful RFP clearly outlines the ultimate goals of a particular project. The timescale – and timeline – are equally important to get right, as is the decision on which agencies are to receive the RFP. However, even an RFP that succeeds in covering these basic requirements can fail overall.
Remember that an RFP is, in part, a document that is designed to sell your company to creative and talented agencies, and that these agencies will be receiving many such documents from other companies, some of whom will no doubt be your competitors. Preparation, therefore, is everything!

Firstly, if you are working with multiple teams, internal communications can sometimes need fine tuning to make sure the RFP properly reflects the needs of each group.
Secondly, a good RFP can save you time in the early stage selection process, weeding out those entries which have merely been sent as a copy & paste response.
Thirdly, it is very easy to find an agency who will tell you that they can deliver the work, but if you are looking for excellence as opposed to adequacy, then a well-researched RFP will push agencies to respond in kind. We have drafted our 2015 Digital Marketing RFP Guide to help you meet these three objectives, as well as taking you through the structuring of a new RFP from start to finish.

Producing a detailed scope of work

When working across a number of different internal teams (from Sales and Marketing, to IT and Senior Management) the chosen agency may be required to meet distinct objectives for each team.
At the very beginning of the RFP consultation process, organise a series of short, punchy meetings to discuss everyone’s ideas on how the new agency should work with the existing team structure.
Ideally, the discussion should address points such as: identifying individual team members who will act as contact points for the agency; frequency of communication and method; scope of work to be addressed, and timelines for completion.
Using the key points expressed in each session, draw up a list of overall requirements and email back to the teams for approval.
If any of the points are particularly technical or jargon-heavy, ask your colleagues to reword them appropriately. Sometimes this initial consultation process can reveal some conflict areas, for example with the framework for delivery, so be sure to ask the individual teams how committed they are to certain deadlines.

Getting the questions right

Once you have pinned down the precise tasks involved, start drafting a list of questions to form a checkbox of objectives.
Make sure your questions are open-ended and do not overlap. Here are some example questions to help you think about the correct phrasing for your own:

  • What is your method of calculating bids for low traffic keywords?
  • Which, if any, SEO tactics are you opposed to?
  • What is your approach to researching audiences, and what are your preferred tools?
  • What methods do you employ to deal with both seasonal traffic and one-off promotions?
  • How do you approach international geo-targeting?
  • What are your tools for, and methods of testing paid searches?
  • What can you offer in terms of (for example) mobile SEO? How about international SEO?
  • How many of your existing clients have suffered search engine penalties?
  • What will we need to do (or provide you with) in order to make the project a success?
  • What is it that makes your agency better/more efficient than your competition?
  • In what areas has your agency led the Digital Marketing field recently?
  • Are you able to give us information on projects you have completed recently for clients of yours that operate in a similar field to us?
  • Are you happy for us to contact these clients (for recommendations)?

Be open to what a working collaboration really means

A check-box layout of objectives (as designed above) ensures that your RFP outlines the full technical requirements, but make sure to include at least a few sentences which clearly define the overall project and its aims.
Also in this short synopsis, set out the history of the project – are there any ongoing issues that would be helpful for a responding agency to know? This is where many personnel recruiters go wrong – by not acknowledging singular features of the role because of a belief that organisational weaknesses should not be made explicit.
A successful agency in this RFP hiring process will become your colleague in the future, so if there are any obvious internal challenges, it is best to be upfront about them and see whether the RFP response brings back any solutions.

Be clear on the spec

It’s important to be as clear as possible on what kind of volume you are expecting for the project, so that responding agencies know to address any issues around capacity or deadlines. Some smaller agencies that work with freelancers will want to demonstrate that they can match the requirements of the work, and will need to secure relevant contacts to match the extent of the work.
Similarly, thinking in terms of any creative work that falls under the scope of the project – do you have a clear idea of how you want the work to be undertaken, or is the project a blank canvas for the agency to work with? A brief that includes a creative element will need to factor in design proofs and approval into the timeline of project delivery.

Technical compatibility

We cannot really stress this point enough. Sometimes an agency that might seem right for the job in every other respect, is experienced with software that differs from your existing technical setup. In many cases, these technical skills are transferable, but making an adjustment can sometimes incur a cost element attached to working with a new system, or extra training for staff members.
Consequently, this oversight can prove costly and can quickly put a serious strain on the working relationship, not to mention delaying the project fulfilment.
If changing your existing technological setup does not form part of the RFP remit, then be certain to stipulate this. Make sure also that you ask for proof of working within your chosen parameters.

Explain how the successful agency will be selected, and your measures of success

Usually, an RFP sets out a blue sky vision of what their dream project looks like, but is less transparent about their priorities within this. It is unlikely that any agency will be able completely to meet all the objectives set out within the RFP, so it can be useful to mention the most important aspects.
Too many RFPs do not mention how the eventual project will be assessed: whether reports will need to produced with qualitative or quantitative data, for example.

Think carefully about realistic time scales

Ideally the final, approved RFP will be completed in enough time to leave at least a couple of working weeks for the agencies to come back with a response.
Setting a deadline which is too far away may cause it to be put on the back burner, or forgotten completely, so do not be too generous with the final turnaround time. Equally, take into account the usual office workflow calendar.
It should be obvious that you’ll need to allow extra time if it is around the Christmas period or over the summer months, when many of the people needed to contribute to the proposal response are likely to be on holiday.

Discuss how to frame the question of budget

There are pros and cons when it comes to talking about the project fee. On the one hand, if you are looking for the best deal, or are unsure about what figure to realistically put on this piece of work, then there is a danger that you will set a budget that is way off the mark.
On the other hand, many agencies may presume that the project is not definitely going ahead if a clear budget is not stated, and will therefore not bother responding to the proposal request. The best way to be certain of getting value for money is to ensure that enough RFP submissions are received to allow for comparison.
If there is a knowledge gap in your team on how much the project should be priced at, then we suggest you take independent advice and then set a realistic bracket.
If an agency thinks it can significantly undercut this figure and create an advantage over its competitors, then it is likely to do so, regardless of your quoted figure!
A good question to ask will concern the breakdown of the agency’s fee structure, as this will show you where they view the highest costs in relation to your project.

Do you have all the answers?

No. That’s partly why you are looking for an agency to look after this particular piece of work.
This is frequently the case when it comes down to a question of coding or technology; many people have a vague idea of what is missing, but are not completely sure how to put that into words; it’s quite likely that they may not fully understand the range of options open to them.
Give prospective agencies a chance to show their creativity and expertise, with a real example task or scenario included within the RFP demands.
If this proves tricky, then why not include a ‘Tell us something we don’t know” section to see what comes back? How they handle this challenge will also be an easy way to differentiate between submissions, when the time arrives for making a shortlist after the submission deadline. It may also save you from receiving regurgitated and unhelpful case studies that were produced for other clients.

Think about the RFP process in the same way as personnel recruitment

In other words, save some of the finer points for agencies which make the shortlist. At some point you will want to know the background and bios for each of the people on the proposal, but let’s be honest – it’s unlikely to be a deal breaker in the early stages. The RFP is a chance for you to get a good idea of the overall approach that an agency may take in handling your project, but ask for too much information and even the preliminary knockout round of decisions will be time-consuming.


It is all too easy for the meaning of a sentence to be misconstrued, or the mode of application missed.
If you don’t want to be bombarded with queries regarding a minor technicality in your RFP wording, get a colleague who has not been involved with the drafting process to proof-read the document, and point out whether any sections are ambiguous or contradictory.
As with a job listing, make sure that the deadlines and desired mode of submission are consistent in formatting, made bold or underlined, and repeated in the document.

It’s ready to send! But to whom?

Most RFP submissions take a while to put together, and as a result, many business development teams make a judgement on how many to apply for at one time.
Projects which seem unlikely to be won are eliminated. Sending a personal note out to the working teams alongside your finished RFP document can make all the difference, and can also encourage agency new business teams to invest time into replying with a carefully taiIored response.
It will be likely to save you from having to plough through irrelevant submissions, or submissions from agencies whose capacity or location mean that you could never consider them anyway.