Experiential marketing as a business is experiencing explosive growth. But with that growth comes added scrutiny. For brand-side marketers charged with partnering with experiential agencies to deliver breakthrough experiences for attendees, that means issuing more RFPs, more often, with more attention to the bottom line. But as the cultural landscape evolves, so does the search for the perfect agency partner. New priorities, such as inclusion and diversity, have surfaced. And the demand for standout creative has never been higher. Straight from the trenches at Salesforce, Accel, Facebook and Stripe, here’s how some of the industry’s most active event departments are reprioritizing their RFP processes.
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1. Think diverse and inclusive
In today’s business climate, diversity and inclusivity are increasingly a priority for brands, not just within their own company cultures but within the organizations they do business with. That certainly applies to the RFP process. “We are looking for a company who values diversity, who values equal pay and can demonstrate that when they come in the door,” says Karin Flores, vp-strategic events, corporate marketing, at Salesforce. Ask how many women or people of color are on the agency’s executive leadership team. Is the agency diverse in gender and ethnicity, but also in backgrounds?
2. Prioritize the creative
With every brand seeking to conjure up that “wow” moment for attendees and hoping to unearth the next big thing in experiential, delivering on the creative portion of an RFP has increased in importance in recent years. “Everyone is generally becoming more visual and we need to know that they can meet us on that same level of the creative that we’re looking for,” says Trista Myers, head of events at Salesforce Ventures.
3. Beware of the trend trap
The influence of the Instagram museum can be detected far and wide—even beyond the event industry itself. But marketers should resist the urge to apply a splashy trend to their events if it’s not going to help deliver on company goals. “Agencies can take cues from that, but it’s not going to work for everyone,” says Myers. “I’m looking for how we can take some of the really awesome parts of [a trend] and apply it to b-to-b environments or experiences that really drive sales.”
4. Be transparent with budget
“I don’t feel the need to hide something from someone just to see if they can come in under budget,” says Flores. Moreover, she recommends avoiding apples-to-apples cost comparisons. “It’s just not possible anymore, and I think that all agencies have different, robust talents. They don’t look at things in the same way, and that’s what makes them special,” she says.
5. Get to know the team
When meeting an agency in person, request to meet with the team that you’ll actually be working with on the project. “I don’t want people to come into the RFPs, especially if they make it into the stand-up round, with their sales team when they’re not the people who are working on the program, the sponsorship or the deal on a day-to-day basis,” says Flores.
6. Require tech flexibility
Whether it’s working with your brand’s project management software or in-house registration technology, determine whether agencies have the flexibility and are nimble enough to adapt to your own platforms in order to increase efficiency. “You’ll see agencies come in with their in-house solutions,” Flores says. “But I think that having the flexibility to come in and be able to jump in and start working with us on technology is really key.”
7. Know THEIR bandwidth
If you plan to work with an agency on multiple projects, determine whether they have the bandwidth to deliver your preferred teams. “We ask a lot of questions around the team. If we’ve worked with people before, is there a way to get some of them or all of them on the account? Or, if we’re doing two big simultaneous projects with the same agency, how do we make sure that we’re being fully supported?” says Myers.
8. Ensure confidentiality
The reality is that an agency you choose may be working on competing events, so it’s imperative to prevent the sharing of your event’s and company’s IP. Also, work to ensure that any RFP notes given out to vendors who are not chosen in the end are not applied to other projects. “We make sure that our intellectual property, our creative and our team are not crossing over too much and sharing any industry or Salesforce secrets,” says Myers.
9. Ensure values match
Teams of colleagues spend long hours and weekends together in the events industry, so get to know an agency’s team and company culture before making a decision. As head of brand events and community activations at Uber, Molly DeShazo emphasized the category “company overview and engagement” when evaluating RFPs. “It was important to us to understand how these companies operate,” says DeShazo, who is now head of community events at Accel. “Do they have employee enrichment or training programs? Their own website and social media presence? Some didn’t treat their own brands with respect. We are putting our brand in their hands and if they don’t take care of their own brand, what can we expect for them to do for us?”
10. Be transparent with the creative ask
Be precise as you can about the creative you’re looking for from an agency, whether it’s improving upon a previous event or creating something entirely new. Provide examples of work you like or past examples of your own events. “I provide them with a good amount of information so they can understand where we’re coming from, the background of the company, the kind of programs that we want to add and exactly what I want to see from them in the process,” says Courtney Correll Chaves, head of events at software company Stripe.
11. Evaluate the Q&A process
With most RFPs, agencies are given the opportunity to ask questions within a given time period. This is a chance for brands to evaluate an agency’s specific inquiries and level of detail and curiosity. “I like to evaluate how they come back to us with questions and what they’re focused on,” says Myers.
12. Require a measurement plan
While companies like Salesforce tend to set internal benchmarks for measuring ROI, it’s still advisable to ask agencies to provide a measurement strategy and for brands to be open to collaborating on new ways to capture data. “I’d like to understand from a strategy position what an agency can bring me,” says Flores. “There is the expectation that agencies come in with at least a theory or an approach on data and measurement,” adds DeShazo.
13. Go outside the industry
It’s important to include agencies on your short list that have experience activating in your industry vertical. But throwing in an agency from another industry will add diversity of thought to the mix and just might offer up fresh ideas. “It’s always more interesting if you have a more diverse pool that you’re talking to,” says Chaves.
14. Consider multiple agencies
For some programs, it’s possible to onboard more than one agency, including one umbrella agency to manage the lot. If that’s an option, it behooves brands to determine how well agencies play in the sandbox. “Can they run everything if you have a very large, complicated global program? Maybe not, but they might be able to take a facet and partner with a different agency and then you really get the best of both worlds,” says Flores.
15. Seek realistic references
Take an agency’s references seriously, but press them for realistic evaluations. “They’re not going to give us clients that were unhappy with their work,” says DeShazo, speaking of her Uber activations, “but we called them out if they only gave us totally shining examples.” Chaves says to engage your own network for feedback on the agency’s creative and work style as well.
16. Evaluate workflow
Ask agencies to provide examples of internal processes, from a flow chart, to a run of show to a sample timeline. Determine how they run meetings, and how they deal with action items and follow-ups. Ask yourself, says Chaves, “Does it create greater efficiencies for us to be working with this team or did we have to handhold so much that it actually
created a lot of inefficiency and extra work?”
17. Think partnership
It’s about collaboration in the end and, ultimately, agencies should be an extension of your own team. Finding partners that you can rely on limits the number of times that you have to go to market. “We’re looking for someone to come in and push the envelope with those fresh ideas. We’re not necessarily the experts here—we’re partnering with who we hope will be,” says Chaves.