You’re in the middle of important work on behalf of your existing clients and you receive a 50-page RFP asking you to respond in two weeks. The document asks for detailed responses to 100+ questions, plus pricing, forms, case studies and other materials. This happens quite frequently to those of us in sales and marketing roles—especially at healthcare advertising agencies. It could take days or even weeks to develop and package a thoughtful response. If you have a dedicated RFP team at your disposal, you’re in luck. But for those of us working in mid-size firms, we may be forced to decide between submitting a cookie-cutter response or suggesting to our managers that we turn down the opportunity altogether.

In fact, many ad agency execs will simply pass on outsized RFP inquiries; others will only respond if the budget is sizable, whether or not they are truly passionate about the client and scope of work. This doesn’t benefit the agency—or the client trying to get the very best partner and the most impactful marketing support.

Comparing the capabilities of healthcare advertising agencies

Many of us have been in the customer’s position, too. You have to benchmark the performance of so many vendors vetting for your marketing budget. Making the wrong decision can lead to months of additional work, wasted dollars and missed opportunities. Yet RFPs require extensive work on the client’s part, too. So are RFPs an outmoded approach, or still the best model for selecting marketing firms including healthcare advertising agencies? 

The truth is that marketing firm RFPs will always be a requirement in some sectors like the government, where a Department of Health may be launching a new campaign to educate Medicaid enrollees or promote a new wellness initiative in the community. But for private-sector healthcare companies, comprehensive RFPs are typically a cumbersome process that often weeds out smaller or more specialized healthcare advertising agencies that won’t respond, but who might actually be an ideal fit for their needs.

Updating an outmoded approach

RFPs were incredibly helpful in the days before agencies and consultants could put their best work, case studies and results all online. After all, marketing people were often going in blind and didn’t know where to begin with this process. But today, RFPs are really a vehicle for soliciting pricing and recommendations that could often be more effectively—and easily—done via a personalized request for a customized proposal and meeting.

That doesn’t mean you have to discard the entire proposal process altogether. Making some adjustments to the way you conduct your agency search can generate big returns in terms of quality work and client satisfaction. But before you go down the road of developing an extensive RFP, ask yourself a few questions about the type of information you’re really trying to obtain from agencies and the most important factors in your decision:

  • Does your purchasing department require a standardized RFP process, or is this process optional? If not, would the time spent developing an extensive RFP and vetting agencies be better allocated to other activities? Or could you adjust the scope and focus more on results, case studies and creative—areas that typically matter most?
  • What is the primary reason you are considering an RFP? If you are unsatisfied with the proposals you’re receiving from healthcare advertising agencies today, there may be a better option. For example, you may want to consider expanding your search to boutique firms where leaders will spend more time personalizing their response, and their work product. Or send out a small list of tailored questions based on your company’s needs (minus all of those tedious form fields). This allows the agency to show you their best stuff, while you are still able to set some standard parameters.
  • Who is involved in the purchasing decision? If there are fewer than 4-5 influencers, an extensive RFP may not be necessary, especially if you have your top agency picks come out for a presentation and speak with these decision-makers in person. In fact, if stellar communication and service are among your most important priorities, seeing the agency’s staff interact in person may be much more valuable than anything you’ll read in an RFP response.
  • Have you already asked for recommendations? Asking for referrals from colleagues and industry experts is one of the best ways to secure an agency that can deliver on deadlines, service and creative expectations. This may help you avoid the hassles of vetting RFP responses altogether.
  • How many finalists are you looking to identify? Would the time spent developing and vetting a large RFP be better allocated to refining the targets on your initial inquiry? Throwing out a wide net may be best for less creative pursuits, but when you can see the agency’s work beforehand, you can often weed firms out before you distribute your inquiry.

Developing an RFP that gets the job done

After considering these questions, if you still think a comprehensive RFP is the best approach, consider these tips to ensure that you get the right information and the best possible pricing from all of the top healthcare advertising agencies on your list:

  • Make your goals clear from the outset. All too often, RFPs are long on general questions, but don’t get to the meat of what the client is trying to accomplish. If so, asking your targeted list of healthcare advertising agencies to respond with similar case studies, samples and a recommended approach may be the best option.
  • Keep it simple. Limit your questions to personalized, thoughtful inquiries that you can’t easily secure by just glancing at the agencies’ own websites and samples.
  • But don’t skimp on the important details. Provide as much detail about the project scope as possible. All too often, RFPs are overly vague and the recommendations and pricing you’ll receive in return won’t be specific enough to be useful.
  • Think results. Always ask the agencies how they plan on measuring results and what that means you’ll get in return.
  • Limit the playing field. Don’t send out a blanket RFP to 50 agencies. That just means days of review for you and your team. Instead, do some legwork up front and ensure that you have a list of healthcare advertising agencies you’d actually consider based on their work experience, client list and results.