Easing RFP Angst: A Guide to Selection of the Right
Media Agency

Janet Nicolini
Director of Marketing Services at LogicSource

The sourcing of a new media planning and buying agency is probably the most difficult and important RFP process that a marketing client (and their procurement partner) will undertake. Why? There is so much at stake, and it is difficult to pivot away from the wrong partner after investing so much time in the transition process. Media agencies and their strategic, analytical, and executional competencies play a large part in the achievement of a company’s business objectives.

Long gone is the time where an agency placed a media buy for TV and print ads and waited several months until the effectiveness of the ads could be measured. Analysis and optimization take place daily in the digital world, and the agency that can see the field and recommend quick, effective pivots is the one that will serve a business best.

In simple terms, a new media agency will ingest a client’s sales and marketing data, which will include first-party data on consumer behavior, current media channels, any marketing mix effectiveness data, historical campaign performance, key competitors, and any other information to help them understand strategic consumer targets, sales sensitivities, market share, and key drive windows. Then they will proceed to audit, analyze, and optimize the plan for the new media placement cycle. As the media is running, the agency will continually optimize budget and channel mix based on key performance indicators (KPIs).

When we source a new media agency for a client, we consider this to be a huge investment of time and resources… and somewhat of a leap of faith that the agency will be effective in improving business performance. So, what can we do as a procurement consultant to help lessen the distance of that leap and provide our clients with the most assurance that their needs will be met? After conducting dozens of media agency RFPs, we’ve developed this list of important selection criteria:

Is the agency the right size/core competency profile for your business?

You do not want to be an agency’s biggest client, nor do you want to be in their bottom tier. Agencies have a “sweet spot” when it comes to the range of budgets and channels they can handle well.

Media agencies generally fall under four groups:

1. Large global agencies (mostly holding companies with various owned agencies)
2. Mid to larger-sized independents
3. Smaller “boutique” full service
4. Specialty agencies (focus on one or two channels)

The initial list of candidates for an RFP should already focus and narrow this down to what is appropriate for your business needs and budget. The trend now is for the larger holding companies to offer boutique or custom-sized options that will also have access to the tools and buying power of the holding company.

Have they gone that “extra mile” in the RFP response to truly think about your business?

In any given RFP response, there are “routine” questions that will ask about approach and capabilities. These responses seldom vary significantly across the agency candidates, largely because the agencies have been pre-screened before they even make it to the candidate list. So what can you do to determine which candidate(s) have that extra “something” that will make them a great partner? In the RFP brief, give them some background and consumer insights on your business, and talk about the challenges you face. Ask a question that makes them think about what trends in your industry will affect your business, and what implications that would have on how they approach media plans. The way the agencies answer this question is often a key differentiator in who makes the final shortlist.

How do they monitor, analyze, and report on how your next dollar should be spent?

Fancy reporting tools are great, but “so what?” Who on the team will be in your strategy meetings, recommending pivots and optimizations for the buys? Do they have measurement tools that will be compatible with your data platform and provide the information that you need in the form that you need it?

It’s not just about agency compensation—it’s also about media buying effectiveness and efficiency to achieve better ROI with media dollars. Have they demonstrated how they will achieve this?

One of the things you can ask an agency candidate to do is to audit your current “as bought” media plan. To do this, you will need to grant access to your search and social platforms. It is also typical that a new agency will claim that they can save 5-10% on your media costs in year one. This is entirely possible because they will be renegotiating deals that your incumbent may have been comfortable with, but this is also very difficult to monitor and prove, unless your plan is the same as the prior year. An RFP question would ask the agency to look at your current plan and tell you what they would do differently and from where the savings will come. If appropriate to the situation, we would negotiate for a clause in the agreement that would hold the agency accountable for that savings that they promise in the pitch.

How do they perform on a custom assignment?

To ensure that our clients can have a good sample of the agency’s thinking before final selection, we always recommend a custom assignment to go along with any media RFP. The nature of the assignment will vary based on client needs, but it should not be an unreasonably heavy lift on the agency finalists. Some examples of custom assignments are: Presenting objectives and budget for one campaign (e.g. Back to school) and having them come back with an approach and plan, presenting a challenge that you have faced with a particular time period or competitor and asking how the agency would change the prior plan to address, asking the agency point of view on a new media channel you are thinking about testing, asking for their point of view and insights to how/if you can succeed, and how to structure the test and learn plan.

Ultimately, the result that you get from fielding a Media Agency RFP will depend on how well the RFP questions and assignment are structured, to best fit your business needs. An experienced procurement partner can make this process much easier to navigate, and lift a tremendous amount of work off of the shoulders of your internal team.

About the Author

Janet Nicolini

Director of Marketing Services at LogicSource

Janet has decades of senior-level experience across the marketing spectrum, including integrated marketing management positions on the client side and new business development and account service positions held on the agency side.