Rethink the PR RFP: Advice for Hiring an Agency Partner

Sep 07, 2021 Jason Morris

It’s been a weird 18 months. Really weird.

How else can you describe the tech industry going from the Sequoia Black Swan Memo to record exits, financings and a tighter job market than anything we’ve seen since Internet 1.0? Innovation is booming and the trickle-down effects are real. 

If you lead communications or marketing at a startup or are a founder, this boom is a double-edged sword. The same tailwinds that are propelling your business forward, are headwinds in the acquisition of talent and partners. 

Which takes us to the agency world. It doesn’t matter the type of agency — PR, creative, content marketing or digital media — it’s safe to say that they are all struggling with the imbalance between supply of talent and demand for services. Or, to put it more simply, this is the worst imbalance I’ve seen personally in that equation since 1999 and it might be worse than the dotcom boom. 

Q4 is going to be even more competitive than normal. September starts a busy time of year when many companies have set 2022 budgets and are looking for partners as well. 

So what’s a company to do? Here are some tips if you find yourself looking at hiring an agency partner for any marketing discipline in the next few months:

Shop early and be flexible on timeline.

Nothing will whittle your preferred agency partner list faster than expecting firms to be able to start in 10 days. It’s not always true, but the firms with more ready capacity and an eagerness to drop everything for your business might be available for the wrong reasons. 

Know the going rate.

Too many companies set expectations with management on a budget before seeing what the market is for hiring firms. The competitive job market has made the cost of acquiring talent more expensive and that cost directly impacts what agencies charge clients. The going minimum retainer or hourly rate for that firm or contractor you want to hire has probably increased since your last search in 2018. Having to restart your search because you’re holding the line at an unrealistic budget will cost you precious time and eventually land you in the same place cost-wise. 

Ask for recommendations from people you trust.

Ask colleagues, peers, your investors or others who they might recommend. Saying you were recommended to a firm by someone they know is a surefire fast track to a conversation and being prioritized by that agency if they have any capacity. 

Rethink the RFP.

Nothing will get a firm to drop out faster than an overly formal, long RFP process with the intention to invite 15 firms to respond. It’s not that firms are afraid to compete — they’re not. But think about the current environment — agencies are swamped with opportunities, many of them recommended to them by people they trust with no formal RFP process. At agencies where senior people actually work with clients, they have to weigh the opportunity cost of spending long hours answering template questions and doing a multi-stage proposal, versus spending more time with their people, their clients and pursuing prospects that come recommended with simpler processes.

Don’t take it personally if you’re told “no.”

We’re in an economic environment where firms are interviewing you too (the good ones always are). There are a number of things that make an opportunity attractive to an agency, but sometimes even the best opportunities are misaligned in terms of timing or available resources. Inkhouse has turned down about 20 opportunities in the past 12 months that would in other times register as one of our three best opportunities in a given calendar year. We just haven’t had the staff capacity to take them all. The market is just that good right now and it often has nothing to do with how much we like the company or the people there. But while we’re on it... 

Be a good human during the process.

COVID-19 has ramped up empathy for each other and tampered down tolerance for working with jerks. The people you hire and the agencies you partner with have other options and the self-respect to move on from a toxic partnership. A sure-fire way to get blackballed in the agency world is to be rude, disrespectful or go dark on a firm that has invested hours of time pursuing your business. We can handle a “no,” but just cutting off contact is awful. It’s a small industry and it will make your next foray into finding a partner even harder. 

It’s a tough environment for getting noticed. You need help and probably have a compelling story to tell to the world about a big problem you’re solving. If you shop smart, are flexible and rely on your network to help you cut through the superficial parts of the RFP process, you’ll be in a much better position to find the help you need. If you’re completely stuck and can’t find someone, feel free to reach out and ask me for recommendations. I am always willing to help with ideas even when we might not be a good fit.

Happy hunting! And if you want to learn more about partnering with Inkhouse, email our new business team at workwithus@inkhouse.com

Jason Morris

Jason is president of Inkhouse and leads operations from the firm's San Francisco office. His singular mission is to debunk the myth that people can't be happy long term on the agency side of PR where he has spent more than 20 years working with companies in technology and consumer.

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