The Right Way to Hire a Digital Studio: Skip the RFP

by Dirk Knemeyer

This is the first in a series of four articles intended to help clients forge more successful and mutually beneficial relationships with outside design agencies.

Being made to feel like a number is a terrible thing. We’ve all been there before, whether listening to an ignorant functionary reading off a customer service script that is not relevant to the reason we called, or excitedly responding to a job posting and never being sent even a courtesy note acknowledging the submission, or learning that a company whose products you like is a major polluter and bad corporate citizen. All of these examples make us feel like we don’t matter, that the company is not willing to invest the time or money to relate to us or our community in a human way. Rather than cultivating our enthusiasm for their products or services, efficiencies that make the customer feel unimportant set up a long-term transactional relationship. The resulting lack of connection kills any sense of investment that creates excitement and affinity between a company and its customers.

When you issue an RFP for your projects, you are framing that same cold, dispassionate relationship with your service provider. You are taking the wind out of their sails before you’ve even chartered the boat.

Sending out an RFP sure seems efficient. You can open the process to dozens or even hundreds of possible competitors. You only have to do the work once, writing a really good RFP, then have the agencies do a great deal of work to craft a response worthy of consideration. You can sit back, skim the responses, winnow it down to the few that look strongest, and then focus deeply on just those. It really does sound good on paper. However, there are a few problems:

  • You waste a lot of people’s time. You may not care about this one: you’re the one with the big budget these agencies could benefit from. They should dance. They should be the ones doing all of the work. It’s just part of being an agency, right?! Well, no, not really.
  • You communicate to all of the service providers that “This process is really not worth that much of my time.” Yes, really. Even if that RFP is umpteen pages of searing strategy and “best practice” specifications, the mere fact that an RFP is being used as the first level of screening tells all of the agencies—the one that you hire, whose perspective materially matters, along with those you don’t, who will just think you’re another empty suit—that you don’t care. It is the wrong way to represent your company and yourself as a professional.
  • You are inadvertently weeding out the best partners. Ah, now this is the one that can really hurt your bottom line. Agencies are similar to single people looking for love: the best ones, the “catches,” aren’t “just looking for love.” They are looking for the right person. The best fit. The partner that they see as a peer, with whom they can invest themselves in building an amazing life project. Those agencies avoid the RFP process like an unsweetened kale smoothie. Instead, the desperate agencies respond to RFPs. Those that don’t get enough work because they can’t win against the better agencies. Those that are too inexperienced to have given up on RFPs yet, and are similarly too inexperienced to be worth the major investment you’re going to put into them. Is that the kind of agency that you want to be working with?

Regardless of which agency you select, they are going to feel treated like a number. It is an inevitable outcome of the mass RFP. The process itself communicates that, rather than take the time to research and find a great fit to make the best situation you can, you’re going to throw as many lines into the water as possible and see what happens. Instead of single-line fishing for the perfect catch, you’re going to drag a net across the bottom of the ocean and see what comes up.

The agency relationship is exactly that: a relationship. The more engaged, the stronger it is, the better creative talent and skill an agency is going to provide. Even for the rare clients we’ve had that we didn’t like or respect, we worked hard. But when the client is engaged, when they are as excited, involved with, and invested in the project as we are, magical things can happen. Part of that is their caring enough to invest time to realize what an outstanding fit we would be for them in the first place.

So, if I’ve convinced you to leave the RFP behind and try something new, what exactly is the best way to narrow down your choices and get to the perfect-fit agency?

1. Create a set of criteria to guide choosing which agencies to consider, such as:
  • Agency size. Smaller agencies generally provide more personalized attention, while larger agencies often have a robust ability to scale. Size matters.
  • Agency location. We recommend that clients choose an agency within 300 miles of their lead team members. Remote collaboration is trendy, but the power of a face-to-face meeting is so much more. A weekly pow-wow is best to get the most out of your agency partner but, even if you want less immersion, being able to call a meeting with little notice to resolve issues or get back on track is valuable.
  • Services offered. Agencies are famous for saying “We can do that!” to just about anything. Don’t get “We can do that”-ed. You want to partner with a firm whose core, primary services directly overlap with the work you need done. If it’s not on their website then it falls into the “We can do that!” morass. Pick agencies that do exactly the work that you need.
  • Vertical experience. Agencies are problem solving for you, and the better that they understand your industry and customers the smarter their solutions can be. If you are in pharma, look for an agency with strong pharma experience. They already start with a leg up, in terms of bringing a value-add to what they envision and create.
  • Proof of credibility. Initial evaluations of agencies—often based on their websites—can be a difficult process. Yes, they might list a big and impressive client, but what did they really do for them? We have a competitor that has a fair bit of overlap with our client list but, whereas we were redesigning their largest and most important software, the other agency was making an internal marketing website, or a simple mobile app. So take a hard look at the fancy client names they boast, remembering that agencies are trying to put themselves in the most attractive possible light.


2. Put together an initial scope of work. Like an RFP, it articulates the work you have to offer and how the agency will contextualize the challenges and opportunities you as a client will provide.

3. Put time into searching for agencies, and measure them against your criteria. Your goal should be to end up with 3-5 agencies that are worthy providers for the work you have to offer. In doing the research and writing up notes for other internal stakeholders you are getting to know these potential partners a little. Already, as the person who best knows your company and work, you are contextualizing them in the needs you’ve identified.

4. Send your scope of work to those agencies, letting them know they are among only a few being considered. At the same time, invite each of them in for a meeting to discuss the project. This is where your evaluation process really begins: Are they prompt? Engaged? Excited? Inquisitive? How they respond to you on the sales side gives you real data about how they will be to work with. You get a sense of how important you could be to them and how hard they will work for you.

5. Pick the one you feel best about and have a small initial project where they suggest changes to the work’s scope and structure. There are two benefits to this. First, the scope of work you put together is not perfect. It is just from the internal side, and may be missing important steps or components that can be brought out by other smart people. Second, a small, initial project is the best way to test for fit with a potential agency partner. Would you marry someone without dating them? Without sleeping with them? Without living with them? Our answers to those questions might differ, but I’m sure we can all agree that just getting married to someone you barely know is never a good idea. An agency relationship is like a marriage, and you want to test for compatibility before signing the contract. Make this a real, paid project so it is a real test of how they really engage and work with you as an actual client.

6. Once the updated scope of work is complete, either negotiate with the test agency for the project or send it out to all the agencies you initially met with and give them all a chance to compete. If you do end up going back out to the other agencies who did not help you with the re-scope, make sure your initial contract with them is also a test project. We will talk about this again in the next article in the series.

This approach will give you a much better chance to find the best agency fit for you, and do so in a way that motivates, empowers, and encourages them to perform at their absolute best. In those cases where some sort of formal RFP is a prerequisite, such as for government work, do your best to incorporate the spirit of these suggestions to make the best of a suboptimal process.

To close, I want to share a quick story. The first large customer we had at Involution Studios used a process like the one I outlined to pick us. I will never forget the first time we met him, as he sat across from us and explained that he was essentially betting the company on the agency partner for this project. They needed to nail this total redesign of a massive suite of products or the future would be very uncertain. It was clear he put his time in to short-list us, along with the other agencies they considered. And from this first meeting, he made explicit the importance that our firm and the work we did could have for their company. Well, we did get the work and it couldn’t have been better for our client: the redesign gave them the best-in-class product and Oracle bought them for a swollen price shortly thereafter. But, more than that, I’m still helping him to this day. When he is making a key hire, he asks for my input. When his child was looking for an internship, he called me. We’re not getting paid anymore but, because he invested time and care into the agency relationship, he has gained an “expert for life” who is always happy to take his call and help him. By not being treated as a number, we were able to exceed his expectations, make wonderful things happen, and still deliver value almost a decade after our work together began. It should be no different for you in your agency relationship.


Topics: Business of Design