Requests for information to search agencies are flying about like Hitchcock's crazed birdies. Jupiter Research recently released some data that signaled winds of change for search. According to Jupiter's ongoing SEM executive survey, the top cited reasons for change were that the agency was too expensive and not proactive.
These documents contain the ultimate list of questions; everything you ever wanted to know about your company but were afraid to ask. While your time as an agency third party might be better spent trying to get an exclusive audience with potential clients, like it or not, the RFI is a part of our business and it is here to stay.
Is it simply a means of qualification? How should one address the response, if at all? Whose nutball idea was it to start sending these things out in the first place? Is there more going on behind the scenes? The answers might surprise you.
I remember the day I received my first RF-anything. I was a young 20-something sitting behind a desk at a small agency armed only with a telephone, a yellow legal notepad, pen and a copy of The Standard Directory of Advertisers. For the uninitiated, this directory -- also called "The Red Book" -- illustrates media spending, and agency information for about 25,000 companies. Its weight is directly proportionate to amount of information it contains.
I carried my copy around for years -- I was in much better shape then.
After a 1,000 or so cold calls and an expected amount of rejection, one fall afternoon an overnight letter arrived with a request for proposal, along with a check to cover our expenses in preparing the response.
People didn't email important documents like that back then. The internet was a mystery; we didn't even have email yet and computers were merely affectations located on senior managers' desks. My initial surprise and pride at being selected for such an honor soon gave way to angst as I had no idea what to do with this thing.
As it happened, we hired a consultant to help us with the process. The man looked as though he had been in advertising for about a 100 years. He sat across the conference room table silently reviewing the document. After a long pause, the silence became maddening.
Should I answer all of these questions? What should my responses look like?
Ah, the cattle call, he said. He noted how lucky I was, citing that the firm that had issued the request actually looked like they knew what they were after. His advice was to answer all of the questions and provide them with whatever they asked.
Lovely, I thought… how much are we paying this guy? Little did I know, these requests had many things in common and many similar or identical qualities. About a month later we shipped our 100 or so page response to the query and hoped for the best.
You have questions
In the old days, form requests were sent as a result of due diligence reviews that corporate policy on the client side of the business dictated a periodic vendor review. In these instances, the chances of an agency change were slim and brand owners indignantly reviewed responses with little thought of hiring a new vendor.
I do so love the categorization, "vendor." No single designation better trivializes how we as agencies make our living.
Well, times have changed since then. Requests arrive via email and are sent to dozens of companies. In the online world and search specifically, the questions are vastly diverse and answering the call isn't quite the same as it used to be. Search is confusing to many, a mystery to some and most definitely a point of frustration for those who seek to advance to the mysterious and elusive "next level."
If the Jupiter data combined with my experience and the rumblings of my colleagues of late is any indication, search marketers haven't reached the mature market diligence cattle call stage yet. They are frustrated, confused and looking for someone to shed some light on the mess explosive growth in the search business has caused.
Someone has answers
I am often on the other side of the review now, and it is most interesting to see what happens behind the scenes with these requests. Brands want to know which questions to ask, and who should be contacted with the information.
Where does this information go? That's an excellent question, isn't it? Nine times of 10, that information is received by the advertiser who proceeds to review the quality of information along with quite possibly a checklist to make sure initial requirements are met.
The review process checklist presupposes that a strategy is in place, with clearly defined tactics and objectives. The best initial advice I can give an advertiser seeking to make a change is to lay out a top line strategy prior to issuing the request and have sound framework of what you seek. Hire a consultant to help you in the process if you have to, but use your strategic directives to help you select a partner and, throughout the process, never abandon your gut feelings.
The other 10 percent
The vast underbelly, let's call them bottom feeders for argument's sake, are sadly alive and well in the search business. In the past year, I have heard of or bore witness to, request for-driven machinations that would make Machiavelli blush.
One firm had a contractor use a family business to create a phony request to gather intelligence on a group of competitors. Another on the client side used the request to gather the required strategic knowledge to bring the search process in-house. Yet another firm initiated a series of phone calls to competing search firms posing as a prospective client to get access to their technology. In a most pathetic display, the telephone bandit neglected to take into account caller ID technology and was quickly discovered.
Though it should come as no surprise to anyone who has lived inside the ad business for more than an hour, these practices in poor taste are nothing new.
The list goes on and on and the fallout from this type of behavior is two-fold. One, firms are disclosing less and less in responses while some are choosing not to respond at all. Still others are annoyed by the requests suspecting malfeasance on the part of the issuer. Second, and most importantly, those genuinely seeking assistance are much less likely to get it.
Flight into the danger zone
Search marketing is rapidly approaching what is commonly referred to as a mature market, requiring a whole new strategy in how the business of being in the third-party search business will change dramatically. Advertisers are unhappy with third parties and increasingly expressing their dissatisfaction in the form of requests for information or proposals.
You can successfully respond to a request and win the business. You can be diligent in your responses and inquiries without being belligerent. You can ask qualification questions before you send your response. In fact, many clients appreciate the inquiries and you may find out quickly that your firm is just not the right fit for them.
Much to the chagrin of those who would call themselves ethically responsible, the bottom feeders will continue to survive and they exist in any business. In the end it seems there is really no need to cry over spilled savoir-faire.
iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Mr. Ryan is managing partner at Kinetic Results