How to Write a Request For Proposal to Hire an Ad Agency

Danielle Hannan

As businesses grow, it’s common for them to require some sort of outside help, usually from an advertising agency. Most businesses don’t have the internal skill sets necessary to do all the things: creative work, media and advertising placement, PR, etc. BTW, growth itself is an incredible feat that every business should be proud of. If that’s your business, congratulations. What now, though? How are you supposed to go about getting this help?

While you can reach out to agencies individually to determine whether or not they’d be a good partner, that could get pretty time consuming. Instead, many businesses opt to send out an RFP, or Request for Proposal.

We get it: RFP sounds kind of scary, (acronyms usually do, IMO). No need to worry your pretty head. Let’s walk through the making of an RFP—the ingredients, how they come together, and what the final product looks like.

What is an RFP?

The Elements of Technical Writing defines an RFP as “a document that solicits proposals, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, service, or valuable asset, to potential suppliers to submit business proposals.”

In layman’s terms, it is a document that details your company’s needs and asks advertising agencies (in this case) to respond with how they’d help and how much their services would cost. When you send out an RFP, you’ll likely get responses from a variety of agencies to compare and contrast their offerings. By setting the appropriate parameters, timeline, and review process for these responses, you’ll be in a great spot to assess who will make the best partner for your organization.

What do I include in my RFP?

Typically, companies will begin an RFP with an introduction to their company—what they do, who they serve, what they stand for, and any other pertinent information.

After a short introduction, companies will explain the kind of work with which they need help. In your RFP, you will detail the type of partnership you’re looking for. Will you use your agency for a one-time project, or are you looking for a long-term partner? Share how long the contract will last.

At every step of your RFP writing process, you need to keep the following in mind:

  • Ensure the work that goes into the agency’s response will match the reward of winning your account. In other words, the type of response you’re requesting should match the scope, or financial payoff, of your project. Typically, longer-term, full-service types of relationships start off with a more thorough RFP process.
  • Avoid redundancy. Try to avoid asking more questions than necessary, or the same questions over and over. Trust that the people responding to your questions will understand the unstated why behind them. Agency people are smart, promise!

Work Type

Detail the kind of work you need help with.
Do you require design work?
Video editing?
Media buying?
Digital or traditional media?
Do you need help with just one facet of advertising, or with the whole enchilada?

Without sharing anything confidential, go into as much detail about the project(s) possible. Do your best to include your budget and timeline—if you are allowed to share that information.  Be clear on your intentions with an agency partner.  If this is a full Agency of Record engagement versus a one-time project, the agencies you are soliciting should know that up front.

Response Format

The next step is to determine how you would like agencies to respond. Decide what information you would like from agencies and in which format. You can ask for examples of the past creative work, resumes and details of team members, budget breakdowns, their processes, technology, and tools.

In lieu of past creative work, you can ask for spec work, which would be a presentation of what the agency would do for your specific project. If you decide to request spec work, you need to allow more time for agencies to respond. We also feel inclined to say that you should also consider some form of compensation if you go this route because you are essentially asking for an agency’s intellectual property. Most industries don’t perform work for free, and advertising shouldn’t be an exception to that. (Can you go to an attorney’s office, solicit their advice, and then not decide to pay them? No.)

Whatever you think would be most helpful in determining who is the best fit for your business should go in your RFP. Be mindful of the fact that agencies tend to write extensive responses, so sometimes asking too many questions can be burdensome once you get to the evaluation period. Note the characteristics of an agency that are most important to you and write your questions/required information accordingly.

You also get to dictate how agencies respond. Do you need hard copies? Note that. Will you only accept PDFs, or are you okay with a Google Doc or DropBox link? Whatever and however your company prefers to work can be accommodated.


More important information to include will be your timeline and selection criteria. Typically, all RFPs include a deadline for questions. If agencies have questions that pertain to the RFP, they must submit them by a certain date. Your company should dictate a specific date on which you’ll review and answer those questions and whether all questions and answers will be supplied to all involved agencies.

The next deadline for an RFP is typically the submission date. Again, if you are requesting spec work, please give agencies a longer timeframe to respond. Then, it’s your job to decide how long it will take your company to review responses and make a decision. In general, it can be helpful to decide how long it will take to review if you can anticipate the number of responses you’ll receive.

The next benchmark of your timeline can go one of two ways. One, you can make a final selection based on the RFP responses you receive. Or, two, you can build in time for in-person interviews. The former option will make the process go faster, but the latter allows for you to get to know respondents, ask any questions you may have about their response, and get a feel as to whether or not your two companies will work well together.

Ideally, tentative interview dates are included in your original timeline to help this process go smoothly. As an agency, we’ve responded to many, many, many RFPs. We strongly recommend communicating to agencies when you’ve decided to move forward with other options. If you employ the interview process, that would mean informing all respondents who did not make the cut.

As far as selection criteria, you can be as forthright or elusive about that as you’d like. However,  if budget is extremely important to your company and/or project, make sure you add that to the RFP. If you’re looking for creative that you’d like to knock your socks off, note that. Avoid making agencies guess what you are looking for. It will be better for you in the long term to make your RFP as transparent as possible.

Spread the Word

Now that you’ve put together your entire RFP, what happens? Well, send it out of course! The whole point of creating the RFP is to garner responses so that you can find the perfect partner for your company.

You can share your RFP on your website and social media channels, you can send it directly to agencies, or you can publish it on the RFP database for free. If you know you wouldn’t hire a particular agency for any reason, just don’t send your RFP their way.

Is Everything Set in Stone?

Although it’s not imperative, it’s a professional courtesy to not make changes to your RFP once it’s been sent off into the world. You can make changes or addendums to your RFP, but we advise you avoid doing this. RFP responses take a lot of effort; making last-minute changes can be really disruptive. Do your best to send out an amendment only if it is absolutely necessary.

Decisions, Decisions

Once you’ve gathered all the responses, read through them carefully. Be thoughtful and critical. Note where you have questions. And then, take several factors into consideration when making your final decision:

  • Skillset – do the agency’s main strengths complement the kind of help you need?
  • Approach/style – do you appreciate/respect their way of doing business?
  • Personality – do you guys vibe?

Sometimes it really does come down to a gut feeling, so the x-factor can be the decision maker.

If the scope of the project is large enough to warrant the additional cost of a search firm, we highly recommend this path. Search firms can help you find the best agency to fit your needs and company’s personality. Their expertise, search management, and ability to see the big picture is invaluable. They can help your organization avoid common pitfalls experienced during agency selection.

Regardless of your decision, be sure to communicate to all agencies who submitted a response when you have made a decision. Most agencies spend an exorbitant amount of time, energy, and love as they craft RFP responses. So, it’s best to communicate honestly and promptly if they’re not the right partner for your company.

We wish you the best of luck as you set out on your quest to find your perfect agency partner. If you have any more questions about writing your own RPF—or if you just have an RFP you want to send our way—drop us a line at whatsup@116andwest.com.