Guide to Writing a Paid Media RFP

29 April, 2020


Bethan Rainford 2021

Bethan Rainford

Bethan Rainford runs the day-to-day operations of the paid media team and heads up the paid media offering. Bethan has spoken at a host of ecommerce events and has been working in paid media since 2015, previously managing accounts for the likes of BMW, Nintendo and MUJI.

This guide is designed to help with writing a paid media RfP and was written in collaboration with one of our clients, Damian Koblintz. Damian is an experienced Head of eCommerce / Head of Digital and has run and participated in several RfPs.


The choice of paid media agency with which to partner on a project is a key one for any business. As with any type of hire, you are committing funds based on evidence that they’ve offered, be it as a presentation, referrals or past work. Typically, you will sign a contract that covers a period of time, be it for the length of a given project or for ongoing work. During the selection process, most agencies put forward dedicated sales people who are skilled at creating relationships and ultimately making prospective clients feel good about signing on the dotted line.

It’s at this point that actual work starts to happen and things can start to break down - expectations around deliverables, time, expertise and so forth can be different on both sides, or there may simply be a mismatch between skills required and that supplied. This is bad for both sides of the equation - no agency wants to fail to meet client needs, and no client want to invest money and time into not getting what they want.

Having run many selection processes client side over the years, the first thing that you have to accept is that the burden of responsibility is on you to get it right in the first place. Ultimately, no-one is forcing you to sign a contract, and if that contract turns out not to be what you wanted, or the agency not the right resource to deliver the project, then it comes down to you having chosen poorly. Your responsibility is good management of your resources, whether that’s spent on media, outsourcing, content or whatever.

So, how do you ensure you have the best chance if getting what you want? There’s one thing that has worked for me over the years, and that’s creating an airtight Request For Proposal (RFP) document. Simply put, this sets out all the information that an agency needs so they can demonstrate their ability to meet all aspects of what you need. Calling around a few places and asking them to ‘pitch for PPC’, for example, is asking to get burned.

What is an RFP?

A Request for Proposal document is one that sets out all of the key aspects of a proposal - what you want the project to achieve, your timescales in selecting a partner and for the duration of the work, what you want to see in the proposal and a number of others. This is set out in more detail below. Ultimately, it’s a document you can send to any third party resource that you wish to consider.

There’s another, less obvious benefit. Documenting your requirements forcing conversations to happen within your business about why you are doing something and what you expect to achieve. This takes things from an acknowledgement of resource needs to a description of benefits, costs and payback time. Having this input at this point in the process will clarify your thinking and bring vital business components - senior management, finance, IT - into the process. They may well have considerations that you had not thought of. If you are a marketing manager or head of department, your job can frequently entail justifying spend to your CMO, CEO and / CFO, so properly documenting and justifying need and return at an early stage can be hugely advantageous when it comes to getting a finalised contract over the line.

Should I create an RFP?

With very few exceptions, this is good practice. A big part of your job as a client side marketing manager is finding the best resources for your company, and it’s hard to do that without considering different supplier options. Given the volume of agencies today, this can be a daunting task - indeed, it would be impossible to consider every single one. 

Creating a Request For Proposal as part of your selection process allows you to streamline this process and gives agencies a good idea as to whether they will be a good fit for you - you may find that certain agencies will remove themselves from the process if they don’t feel they have the capacity to fulfill your needs (this shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing - agencies will frequently specialise you would do well to keep those that remove themselves in this way in consideration for later projects. An agency that wants to deliver the best outcomes to its clients is the best type of agency).

An RFP allows you to assess all candidates on an equal footing, and as such, this will lead to better selections and better results over the long term.

How do you create an RFP?

Before you even get to an RFP, I find it helpful to write down the justification for the project. This will help combat scope creep later on and ensures you don’t overpay or pay for services that you did not originally require. It also helps to have the project goals written down in front of you - you’ll need to share this later with agencies pitching to work with you. This can vary with the level of expertise you have in house - you may be looking for resource to extend existing work or add capacity to a team, in which case you can be very detailed about what you want to achieve (and how to go about it). 

On the other hand, if you are using agency resource to add skills that you don’t already have in house, you may end up with a two step process, the first part of which being an audit to scope out work to be done. This is quite common for things like website development or large scale marketing campaigns. For these less frequent expenses, it does make sense for smaller companies to not pay to have this resource around full time. Some in house marketing professionals baulk at the idea of paying for an an depth audit / project scoping, but in my experience if you chose right they never fail to add value. It’s also a decent way of splitting a potentially commitment in two - if you really don’t believe in the project being scoped out then you can part ways and move on without a longer commitment.

At this point it can also help to get input from experts in the field about what is possible / necessary / desirable. The goal in writing an RFP is that in the end you get what you want, so it’s worth taking some time to make sure that what you want is the right thing for the business.

The final thing that you need to do is set out what your selection criteria are going to be - examples of this might be the ability of agency to supply services, client referrals, price / payment terms, size of team, willingness to commit to work in your office, and so on. These should be demonstrable and you will need the prospective agencies to answer these points specifically - there’s no point in sitting through a long presentation if you then ask them to go away and come back with more information. That typically comes from poor briefing and is to be avoided.

At this point, you can prepare an RFP. Some suggested fields are set out below: 

What should be on an RFP?

Project Name and Contact Person

You may well have multiple RFPs / briefs live at any given point, so make sure you name them clearly so you and your agencies don’t get confused. It’s also really important to give them one point of contact.

Company Background/Introduction

This provides a brief overview of who you are and can include things like URLs, links etc. Where appropriate you may want to refer to attached documents (eg if you were including positioning / segmentation data). You want the agency to spend their time working on meeting the brief, not researching a potential client, so the more relevant information you can supply at this point then better results you are likely to get

Project Goals / Scope of Services

This is where you clearly set out what you want to be achieved and what services you want to procure to do it. It is also an opportunity to explain what resources you will be dedicating to the project in terms of project management, media budget, access to creative and so forth. This will give agencies an idea of what they are working with, so they can put together an appropriate sized resource package.

Project goals should be clear within the text so they can be directly addressed by prospective agencies. Examples include;

  • Optimise and manage existing media channels (as set out)

  • Scope and create blog (this is quite broad and asks agencies to supply expertise)

  • Create new PPC and Shopping structures in line with website categorisation (this is more specific and uses agency resource to fulfil a specific task in line with in house standards)

If you have an order of importance of these then this is worth mentioning as well

You should also set out project KPIs, as specifically as possible. You want these KPIs to make it into the final contract, so it’s worth taking time to get them right. Keep the amount of KPIs to 3-5. Any more than this creates difficulties when you are trying to work out if something is ultimately successful or not, so it’s worth only including the ones that really matter and not including secondary metrics. For example, a PPC agency might increase your ad click through rate, but this only matters if it turns into greater profitability. KPIs should be measurable and have a time frame over which they are assessed.

Example KPIs;

  • Customers Acquired

  • Return on investment for a given spend

  • Conversion Rate

  • Check out completion rate

  • Cost per channel acquisition

Selection Schedule

This specifies when each part of the selection process will occur - this will typically include a call to answer any initial questions, then a presentation, then calls with agency clients, then an agency selection and finally contract negotiation and agreement. This gives all parties a level playing field and ensures that you’re not delaying a decision because different prospective agencies are working to different timetables.

Project Timeline

Do you anticipate an ongoing relationship or will it be a one off delivery of services? This is your chance to specify any particular important dates that you need work complete by, eg, launch of a new website or marketing campaign.

Elements of Proposal

This is absolutely key - this is where you set out what you want an agency to demonstrate and how you want them to do it. This is very commonly done with a presentation and pitch, but you may need them to do it in your offices, or theirs, or through the internet. Being clear at this stage saves everyone time and makes it more likely that you’ll be able to make an informed and like to like comparison of the competing agencies.

Examples of what you may ask for:

  • To meet the people working on your account (rather than just sales people)

  • A review of account / website performance (in which case you will need to give them access, sign an NDA etc)

  • A description of the agencies strengths / distinguishing skills and capabilities

  • Examples or case studies of similar work

  • How they might address specific challenges you have, such as a multi lingual / multi currency / multi site catalogue

  • Proposed cost schedule

  • Customer references

Other relevant factors

Set out any other relevant factors that may impact work done / ability to meet KPIs. For example, you may also be looking to;

  • Relaunch the brand

  • Redesign the website

  • Bring on / cut products

I don’t typically share with agencies what I’m looking for as an agency budget, though others may. Either way, you already should have a idea of your budget and how much it is likely to cost to have the work completed.

Having sent out your RFPs, I will typically have a quick follow up call with each agency so they are as prepared as they can be. Your goal is to find the agency that can create the best outcome, not who is best at pulling together a pitch on limited information / short notice and working to this process helps to ensure that that is the case.

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