Common pitfalls when issuing a Marketing RFP

June 6, 2024
pitfalls of marketing rfx

Creating and responding to a Marketing RFP, RFQ, RFI or RFx is often torturous for everyone involved. Highly regulated sectors like Government and Finance, well – its a given, we get it. Yet for the majority of the business world, there are opportunities to help improve the quality of the almighty RFP and thus the quality of candidates, responses and ultimately the level of service you receive. Let’s get to it.

There’s three sides to this coin. Writing. Inviting. Reviewing.


The intention of an RFP should be to create an even playing field for multiple candidates. There’s a delicate balance between explaining vision, and leaving it open to interpretation and allowing for differentiation. Whenever I’ve received an RFP that’s wide open, it will automatically translate to the following as the respondent:

1 You may not know exactly what you want

So you expect the Agency to help you establish a strategy, plan, and vision. This is dangerous. While many agencies, including Mavenray, are fully capable of executing at that level – and frankly thrive there – it makes it very difficult to compare strengths and weaknesses unilaterally. One approach might be uniquely different from another, but each one of those respondents could take any number of approaches. They can’t however openly fabricate their capabilities and experience. On top of that, when prospective clients show they know what they are talking about, those are the opportunities that highly capable agencies are drawn to.

2 You might be asking the wrong questions

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought ‘if only they asked for this, instead of this’ – knowing full well the intention of the RFP and the goals they’re trying to achieve. Leaving it open for respondents to appropriately challenge what you’ve written is by far the best way to observe strategy. One recommendation – have a section committed to ‘requirements’ that is immovable. Have another section devoted to ‘ strategy’ another on ‘process/workflow’ and another on ‘results’ with a disclaimer that respondents can challenge requests and statements here as long as they provide their rationale. This accomplishes two things that you wouldn’t see otherwise:

  • You can see how aligned your teams are.
  • You can compare strategies on a more granular, point-by-point level.
  • You can learn from them instead of wading through value proposition and all the pitchy BS we have to pull out of the air otherwise.

3 Include budget

Let’s get real here – you know what your budget is. If you don’t, and you’re going to establish a budget by removing the highest and lowest and then finding the middle of the rest – then we have a clear issue. Budget creates clarity. If you walk into a car dealership and start looking at everything on the showroom floor, first thing the salesperson will ask is ‘how much are you looking to spend’ It immediately puts this shopping experience into focus. If you’re looking to spend no more that $60k on a new car, then that means you probably want an Audi not a Ford. Agencies will always ask. It is the one thing that can eliminate or incorporate certain strategies and services right off the bat. If you’re fishing for creative ideas without boundaries, that’ll always end in wasted energy.

  • You can count on an average rate of $165-$185 per hour, higher for strategy, and lower for production work. It keeps the lights on and allows us to hire and grow. When you start seeing those numbers drop, you can expect bad offshoring or problems with staff turnover. You get what you pay for.
  • Now you take that rate and multiply by hours. If you want them to spend less time on this work, then guess what – you’ll get work that’s less too. Good agencies spend more time to get it right, and bad agencies either rush to make a budget or pump meetings filled with bodies to value-bill. Good RFPs will often add budgeted time for core tasks. It says you understand what’s involved. If your estimation is off, then give the respondents the opportunity to challenge.
    • To help you filter out agencies that rush or waste, try asking pointed questions like ‘How many people are in meetings’ and ‘How do you manage projects to ensure they stay on time and on budget’. From responses to questions like this, you should get a little insight as to who is better positioned to be a good partner.


In many situations, RFPs must be released to the public. Federal, state or other governing body wants to ensure that favoritism is abandoned and everyone gets a fair shot. This is particularly helpful for respondents that are minority, veteran or women-owned – they are likely to be afforded even more opportunities and incentives through this process.

With the rest of the commercial world, its a little different. In many situations, RFPs are on an invitation basis. Now they may be publicly available, but not so easy to find. A select group of respondents are chosen, potentially who have been referred or have a prior working relationship with your business. This is in fact most common in the marketing world.

Here are some things to look for when inviting, or more importantly ruling-out, respondents for your next marketing RFP.

1 Focus on turnover, not experience.

There’s so much turnover in this industry that whatever experience a respondent may claim will essentially vaporize as their people leave and new staff come on board. This lack of continuity will radically diminish any lessons learned from prior work, and you’ll really be working with a team that has for all practical purposes been working together for a few months.

Say you’re a manufacturer and you’re inviting an agency that has deep and exclusive experience in your industry – now you’re potentially setting yourself up for the echo-chamber scenario. If you want to get exposure and convert on your audience in a new way then consider looking for fresh ideas from other markets. Buyers are not businesses, they are people. People shop at Amazon, eat at McDonalds, drive Fords and hire plumbers. They are more than your client. So to reach them, you need to understand them more broadly – and break out of the common B2B trap that it’s businesses selling to businesses.

2 Regardless of what this marketing candidate might be asked to do, even if its simply confined to data or technology, you want them to truly care about how they present themselves – because that is a clear indicator that they’ll care about how your business is portrayed. If they are going to touch ANY aspect of your business that makes it to the outside world, you want them to elevate it. They should cringe when something is of poor quality. They should fight to innovate and improve. How they present themselves is a clear indicator.

That means, if you are considering a PR firm that at a glance is almost indistinguishable from an accounting firm, then you’re likely to have a serious problem on your hands later.


Once you have a locked-in RFP and have invited a targeted pool of respondents to the table – the reviewing process is made much simpler. But when those two pieces are not necessarily on point, then this final step can become challenging. Each organization I’ve submitted RFPs to has handled them differently. From Microsoft to Macomb County – regardless of size and budget, or if my agency won or not, there’s lessons to be learned from observing how they approach vetting selecting candidates.

1 Go heavy on the comparison table

You should be able to put a lot in a spreadsheet, like capabilities and features that are directly comparable. Some reviewers have a grading scale. While that’s potentially useful, it can sometimes do more harm than good. Your limited interaction with a respondent means you’re really grading your interpretation of the presentation of their capabilities, which is not necessarily reality. So a checkmark or yes/no/maybe is often more effective. The list here could include:

  • Low turnover
  • Skill X (SEO, SPAC, Video, etc)
  • Comparable case study
  • High-caliber brand
  • Engaged leadership
  • Established methodology
  • Reasonable budget
  • Clear communicators

This list can go on and on. The longer and more comprehensive this is, all the better. You want to try and compartmentalize and condense the core attributes side by side like this. If your RFP was very open-ended, then this list shrinks down and becomes all the more ineffective

2 Become intentional on the intangibles

There are a number of variables, especially in marketing, that you’d qualify as intangibles. Things that you are looking for, that you cant articulate in an RFP, and are often interpreted differently by each member of your team. But it’s these intangibles that typically are the deciding factor, and become the most elusive and mysterious for vendors (like us) to address. This is often where the relationship and consultative approach to sales comes in – but the RFP process should, for the most part, eliminate this entirely. Which means your intangibles are purely for you and you alone. Here’s some examples:

  • Are they fun to work with?
  • Are they innovative? Critical thinkers?
  • Will we learn from them?
  • Will they prioritize us as a client?
  • Will they stay on budget?

There’s only so far you can take this. Much of it is theoretical and open to personal interpretation. However, it’s important nonetheless. The main thing here is to list the intangibles internally while reviewing and openly discuss with your team, it’s hard to fit these in a spreadsheet. These should function as a tiebreaker.

It’s a huge challenge to get an RFx right and set the stage for finding a strong resource to elevate your marketing footprint. We understand that Mavenray is focused on one aspect of your business, so we’re not here to respond to every RFP. We know what we do and do it well. However, we do deliver ‘strategic marketing for high-growth companies’ meaning if you need some advice on writing that next RFP, we’re here as a partner to help.

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