Think an RFP Is Your Only Option for Hiring an Agency? Think Again.

In part 2 of the 3-part series, we highlight five effective strategies you can use to find a qualified partner for your next project.

Published by J.P. Holecka on 05.14.2020

As a digital product studio, we’ve seen more than our fair share of RFPs. Not only do we understand how difficult it can be to respond to them — but we can imagine how frustrating it is to create them. In part 1 of this series, we identified some common problems with requests for proposals. In part 2, we suggest alternative ways to find a suitable partner agency. Finally, in part 3, we provide guidance for structuring RFPs to ensure your project is seamless.

There’s a lot to think about when outsourcing a project to an external agency, especially if you want to develop a digital product or service. Enterprise software systems can have thousands of requirements — and if you’re looking to a third party to help you build it, it’s probably because you recognize that your own team lacks the resources, knowledge, or experience.

So how do you begin the process of recruiting an agency partner? Conventional logic would suggest you put together a request for proposals (RFP) and have agencies bid on the contract. But conventional thinking and innovation rarely go together. RFPs have numerous shortcomings — from the creative constraints they impose, to the relentless focus on high speed and low cost, to the assumption that potential partners should be willing to invest time and resources in free work. An RFP may show you which firm is best at making a pitch, but it won’t reveal which is the best partner for your company. It’s therefore no surprise that they’re often ignored outright by many of the top agencies.

Fortunately, there are other avenues you can follow besides a traditional RFP when looking to work with an agency. Here are some strategies for finding a qualified partner for your next innovation project, without having to waste their time — and yours — with a problematic RFP.

1. Take a Look at Their Past Projects, Clients, and Case Studies

When finding out whether or not a particular firm would be a good fit for your project, a little homework can go a long way. More often than not, you can simply ask an agency to share creative frameworks, methodological approaches, past case studies, or customer testimonials so that you can get to know your potential collaborator. Through your own professional network, you might even contact companies that worked with them on previous engagements and hear firsthand what the experience was like.

If you can’t reach out to their prior clients directly, there are sites like Clutch, where companies publish third-party vetted reviews of agencies they’ve worked with. This is a great way to get a preliminary understanding of which agencies have a strong track record of success and which ones don’t.

2. Recruit an Agency to Help with the RFP-writing Process

It may seem counterintuitive, but if you want to test out a certain agency’s knowledge and compatibility without resorting to a time-consuming RFP, you could reach out and ask them to help you write an RFP. When it comes to niche specialties such as user interface or user experience design, agencies understand that many companies struggle to articulate their requests without expert input, and might even neglect to mention key requirements. This perceived additional cost will be more than made up for, as a much more accurate RFP can reduce risk and potential overages downstream.

By recruiting a high-potential agency to help you frame your request, you may realize they’re the partner you’re seeking — and if they’re not, at least you finish the process with a stronger RFP. At POWERSHiFTER, we offer consulting services to companies with no strings attached, helping them craft RFPs that focus on the right criteria and ask the right questions, so that they can find an agency that’s the right fit for the job.

3. Invite an Agency into Your Company to Educate Your Team

Co-writing an RFP isn’t the only way to build a preliminary relationship with an agency. Invite them to host a workshop or a lunch and learn, so that your team can be better informed around the project you’re hoping to launch.

These types of knowledge-sharing engagements are a low barrier in terms of both cost and effort, and allow you to see who they are, how they work, and whether there are synergies between your teams. At best, you’ve got yourself a partner. At worst, your team is better educated before going through with the next phase of the project.

4. Scope “Discovery” and “Development” as Different Projects

Rather than putting out a massive RFP — and expecting leading agencies to scope out the entire project with limited time and access to stakeholders — it makes a lot more sense to commission multiple smaller engagements. They’re more cost-effective, they’re a great way to get moving on critical projects, and they let you test several agencies with your team. Not to mention, your entire enterprise isn’t riding on their success, so there’s much less risk.

Typically, two of the most valuable mini-RFPs are Discovery and Development.

  • Discovery is similar to a professional consultation: the agency is paid a flat fee to do a deep dive into the issue facing your business and figure out the best way to solve it. Not only do you come away with a plan of attack for your project, you also have a better idea if this is an agency you’d like to work with.
  • Development builds on the foundation laid by Discovery: with the analysis and approach provided through the previous process, it enables you to detail your project scope in a specific, applicable, and scheduled way, so you have a clear path to follow. This is typically a short engagement, and it can either be a chance for you to have a test run with another agency, or to further your relationship with your first partner.

If you’re not quite sure what these engagements should entail, there are agencies that can help. At POWERSHiFTER, we offer Discovery and Development workshops to help companies understand best practices and apply them to upcoming projects. By working with an agency to prepare for a project, you might just realize the right partner is already by your side.

5. Bring Them Onboard to Help Tackle a Business Challenge

Many companies have challenges with their strategic and design workflows, whether it’s in marketing or product development — so why not hire agencies to help you work through these snags? There’s a lot you can learn during a day-long collaboration with an agency: their methodology, their culture, their approach to ideation and co-creation. Best of all, you’re devoting this time to solving an actual need within your business.

Do this with three to five agencies you may want to work with in the future. You don’t have to tell them that there’s the possibility of a larger project down the road. Just by establishing this relationship, there’s a much better chance that the agency of your choice will respond when you announce an RFP in the future, or when you reach out directly to talk through the parameters of your next project.

As you can see from these five alternatives, a one-and-done RFP isn’t the only option for finding an innovative, compatible partner for your forthcoming project. There are several ways to engage agencies in ways that deliver better ideas, better skills, and better outcomes for your company— and foster genuine connections between your teams. So get off the beaten track. And next time you’re considering an RFP, remember that there are more effective, faster, lesser-known paths you can take that still lead to success.

Don’t miss the rest of our series featuring actionable tips on how you can write RFPs that bring you qualified agencies — or ways to circumvent the process altogether. Sign-up now.