It’s time to rethink the content marketing RFP

I’ll be honest: as an agency, our team doesn’t love RFPs. But we do them.

Instead, we focus on relationships—ideally long-term ones that we can nurture and generate referrals from. Caring about your clients works, and it’s something we do particularly well. The RFP process can run counter to establishing these relationships, and it doesn’t always leave room to showcase the innovative take an agency may have on a brief or project.

We understand that for some companies RFPs are a necessary part of compliance. We’ve also witnessed first-hand the ways they fail to capture the most important information, especially in this content-first, “Agency Next” landscape.

To that end, I’ve been thinking a lot about what does make a good content marketing RFP—and why it’s so hard for so many companies to get it right.

Right idea, wrong execution

RFPs have their heart in the right place. Simply put, large organizations need a way to find the best vendor, and RFPs ostensibly provide a sense of transparency and objectivity to this process.

But procurement in many cases lacks the necessary knowledge to find the best agency partner. Sometimes those managing the RFP process aren’t the ones who will be overseeing the actual work. Moreover, while the process may be documented and repeatable, its roots were established a decade—if not a few decades—ago, when the needs of the organization (and the ways we do business altogether) were completely different.

Just look at the ways our hiring practices have shifted throughout the pandemic alone. With the “Great Resignation” sending ample talent out of the workplace, traditional companies are finally coming around to blended teams formed by both contractors and full-time employees—a change PayPal was smart enough to see coming when they invested in the gig economy and bought Hyperwallet.

Artificial (or “augmented”) intelligence has also continued to accelerate, helping us to work better, smarter, and faster. All this to say that the workforce of today is built differently, and has different tools at its disposal. The RFP needs to reflect this, capturing tomorrow’s opportunities to land agency partners who are able to steer companies through waves of change and disruption.

Otherwise, organizations will be wasting time and resources on a slow, complex process that lands them the wrong partner. And there’s nothing worse than burning resources that could be going toward cutting-edge work on the upfront costs of coordinating procurement across departments…only to have to redo the entire RFP process the next year because the agency was the wrong fit.

So, how can companies improve their RFPs? Reflecting the realities of the ever-changing workforce is one way. Another is to become content-marketing literate.

Content isn’t new, but content marketing is

Content is nothing new. But content marketing is—and a surprising amount of our clients still have trouble understanding how to rank their priorities, and the moving pieces involved in producing competitive content.

That’s alright—that’s what we’re here for. But when it comes to RFPs, I see the need for the entire marketing ecosystem to gain a wider understanding of content marketing, so that the hoops agency partners have to jump through are engineered to land a partner who can actually drive their business success.

Perhaps in advertising it can still feel normal to participate in one-way pitches, where the agency is tasked with wowing the client. But we know that the best client-agency relationships are actually built on collaboration, putting egos aside and bringing the brightest minds from both sides of the table.

Further, the best content comes from combining creativity and insight, drawing on both historical and current data to continuously iterate on how to best approach a business need. RFPs rarely account for this iterative, ongoing process. And if your RFP doesn’t help you identify which partner is the most agile (and the most adept at using data to inform the best strategic decisions for your company), then you may be stuck with a marketing plan that is unable to scale and change alongside your company.

With a better understanding of not only what good content looks like, but also the processes and skill sets required to arrive at said content, companies can better tailor their RFPs to their needs—and set themselves up with an agency who can deliver in today’s content-first landscape.

Getting feedback on your RFP

One way companies can avoid an ill-fitted partnership is to gather expert input before the RFP.

Chances are most companies have vendors they’ve worked well with before, or are connected to some in their network—so why not work through your thinking with them?

Especially if you’re not doing run-of-the-mill advertising or looking for a PR partner, these proactive discussions can save you the headache of going through the procurement process without a clear understanding of the type of vendor you need to succeed.

Recently a client of ours, a major electric utility company, realized they needed to design a better RFP—one that reflected the current needs of their digital transformation and that could help them respond to changing customer expectations. They reached out to gain our perspective on their challenge and how we may go about answering it.

Then, we sense-checked together:

  • Did they have preconceived notions about what the solution to their challenge was, and was it different from what we would have suggested as the content experts?
  • Did their questions leave room for creativity or lead respondents toward generic responses?
  • Did their current RFP ask questions that would arrive at unforeseen solutions?

These exercises can be quick and low-cost, but they’re incredibly effective at identifying what does and doesn’t work from an agency perspective.

Similarly, a brand agency relations team was looking at general needs across business units, and thematically saw opportunities to engage outside partners. But instead of asking us if we could deliver on their needs, they asked us to validate whether their needs were aligned with those of their competitors across the space. Were their needs on-trend, and were others taking the same approach to solve the challenge at hand?

Only good comes from these conversations. It widens or sharpens the RFP in the right ways, and gets everyone aligned. By diagnosing (or disassembling and reassembling) the problem, all stakeholders can feel better about the path forward, no matter where it goes.

With the right market sounding exercises, upfront conversations, and content literacy, RFPs can land you a perfect agency partner. If you’d like to ensure your content marketing RFP is designed to succeed, my team loves this stuff—and we’re here to talk shop.

Image: Marcel Strauß/Unsplash

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