Ditching RFPs and Creating a By-Invitation-Only Shortlist

Less is more

Part 2 of a 10 part series

(The right digital agency partner can make or break your organization’s online success. And yet, unless you’re extremely lucky, your partner will only be as good as the process by which you find and select them. In this 10-part series, we’ll share what we’ve learned from our clients about agency selection processes that lead to successful, enduring relationships.)

“Less is more!” minimalist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously proclaimed. While referring to his vision of world-class design, he may as well have been referring to successful agency partner selection processes. It may be true for ice cream, but more is definitely not more when you’re trying to reach a decision.

That’s right—being intentional and choosy about the participants in your selection process almost always leads to better outcomes than a wide-open free for all. You’ll not only spare yourself a lot of unnecessary work, you’ll also attract a better class of agency participants, get to know them at a more-than-superficial level, and motivate their teams to really engage with your process.

Here’s how we’ve seen it done:

  • Know what you really need. This seems obvious, but many organizations struggle with the difference between “essentials”, “nice-to-haves”, and “don’t cares”. Think long and hard about what your agency partner will really need to succeed with you. Is it extensive Sitecore expertise? A local presence in your city? Experience in your specific industry? A proven design process? Or maybe a specific skill like B-to-B lead generation? Challenge yourself and your colleagues to define what’s really needed. It’s hard but it’s a crucial exercise.
  • Start building your ideal shortlist. The ideal shortlist should be just that: short. So, you needn’t worry about identifying 20 or even 10 potentially suitable partners—5-7 that appear to match your “essentials” should be about right. Start with agencies that you already know from past experience and your personal network. Ask colleagues for ideas. Scan the listings provided by your CMS partner. Attend some local meet-ups and ask for recommendations. Check who’s winning awards for great work. Analysts who follow our field can also be invaluable. When you hear the same names over and over, you’ll know your list is taking shape.
  • Strategize how to grab the attention and interest of your shortlist. You don’t need many participants in your process, but you want the best of the best and you want them to be highly engaged. Leading agencies are selective about the opportunities they pursue, so assume you’ll be assessed even as you’re assessing them. Given this, you’ll want to help them discover what you already know is special about your organization, your team, your project, or your selection process. Make it easy for everyone on your list to say, “Yes, we’re in!”
  • Reach out and say hello.  Every agency gets lots of inbound calls and should have a good process for triaging potential opportunities. Emails from an agency’s website should work well, too. Briefly and crisply, we’d suggest, you’ll want to outline who you are, describe the purpose of your selection process, identify how they came to your attention, and hint at a few of the “sizzle” points you strategized about earlier. Close your communication by teeing up a 60-minute meeting with 2-3 members of their leadership team and promising a 1-2 page briefing note that will guide this first discussion.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ll have about 5 mostly pre-qualified agencies excited to learn more and participate in your process. Better yet, they’ll all understand why you’ve shortlisted them and will sense that they have a legitimate chance of becoming your partner. You’ll be poised for a great set of first meetings and a very successful selection process.

We’ll be continuing this 10-part series over the coming weeks and months. If you’d like, please tell us what you’d personally put on your list of best practices for finding and selecting agency partners. We’ll incorporate the best of the best in our series and share credit with you for your contribution. Horror stories and happy anecdotes are particularly welcomed!

About the Author
James Gardner

James has been a marketing professional with leading organizations and their brands for over 15 years. Born in Toronto, he started his career with Procter & Gamble before earning his MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Since then, James has served CxO clients as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company and led numerous high-performing marketing teams. His B-to-C and B-to-B expertise ranges from corporate/marketing strategy and online marketing to strategic partnerships and business development. James lives in Brookline, MA with his wife and daughter.

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