What do you think is the most common problem with the pre-qualification questionnaires that we receive as an agency? Quite simply... they ask the wrong questions! Any process that helps clients shortlist agencies before sending out a major RFP is always a step in the right direction. But these questionnaires are generally developed by procurement teams who have a very limited understanding of their company’s marketing and communication requirements – and practically no understanding of how agencies work. The result is not only time-consuming and costly for all parties, but also generates a shortlist that is poorly matched to the client’s internal teams and business needs.

Good agencies (and smart clients!) understand the importance of agency/client relationships and work hard to qualify each opportunity – a collaborative process of mutual discovery and assessment. If you’d like to make your pre-qualification process more productive and meaningful, here is a five-step approach to get you started.

Step 1: Define your requirements Invest some time in defining your company’s marketing and communication needs. Then, discuss these with various internal teams to determine what type of agency is best suited to your organisation. Do you need expert assistance with event management and exhibitions, or with brand environments & interiors? Or perhaps all of the above. This is also a useful opportunity to build consensus and fill any gaps in internal knowledge.

Step 2: Get a feel for what’s available The agency landscape is always evolving. You must do your own research to get a feel for current offerings. Look at each agency’s showcase, testimonials, awards, financial standing and on-ground staff strength. If in doubt about an agency’s expertise, speak to them directly about the services you’re looking for – their response to your query will also tell you a lot about their personality.

Step 3: Conduct familiarisation sessions Shortlist no more than five agencies and conduct a familiarisation session with each of them. This is a frank, two-way discussion for both sides to establish the basics, and should include a credentials presentation (from the agency), and a company presentation (from your team). Assess the agency in terms of services, approach and delivery capabilities, and most importantly personality – are they the kind of people you’ll be happy to work with? It’s very helpful if you can share your typical calendar of projects and estimate of your annual spend – this allows the agency to understand your scope and budgets.

Step 4: Invite sample proposals Shortlist no more than three agencies and invite them to submit sample proposals. This could be a purely hypothetical brief, or even a project you’ve commissioned in the past. Encourage the agencies to be as creative as possible, but always provide a guideline budget so that competing agencies can be compared on a level playing field.

Step 5: Evaluate and pre-qualify Form a review panel by including key stakeholders from across your organisation. Evaluate the proposals based not just on the solutions provided, but also on who has best understood your business challenges and brand. Who has shown the right level of creativity, who has looked beyond the brief and provided evidence that they can deliver… and who do you most want to build a relationship with? Try to avoid pre-qualifying based on price – by this time both parties will have an understanding of the parameters they’re working with and the final costing model can be mutually negotiated later.

This five-step approach to pre-qualification offers many advantages. First and foremost, both client and agency develop a fuller understanding of needs and capabilities. They also get a feel for what it would be like to work with each other.

Secondly, agencies are more likely to take your RFP seriously when they know they have been carefully pre-qualified. They will be happy to invest time and effort in responding with a solid proposal. In contrast, RFPs that are blindly sent to a large number of agencies are unlikely to receive as much care and attention.

Finally, while there’s no escaping the mountain of legal and financial paperwork that an RFP entails, you will save valuable processing time (and avoid overwhelming your team) if you’re accepting proposals from two to three candidates – rather than an entire directory of agencies from A to Z!