Creating an Invitation to Tender (ITT) is a time consuming process designed to give you the ability to compare a number of different suppliers with the aim of making the best possible decision. However, the ITT needs to be asking the right questions in the first place for it to provide the right results.
In this podcast, Dave and Julie discuss some of the common pitfalls of ITTs and explain how to create a killer document for finding your ideal digital marketing agency. Listen for tips to help you choose an agency partner that is going to work well with you while you providing you with a successful outcome.
You can listen to it using the integrated player above, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Deezer or whatever platform you normally use for your podcasts, or stream it on YouTube. If you prefer reading, we've included a full transcript below.
Dave: Welcome back to the podcast, which is called... Julie.
Julie: Digital Marketing From The Coalface
Dave: Well done.
Julie: Yaay, got it right.
Dave: Digital Marketing from the podcast, as I always say, which is why I got you to say it. I'm here with Julie and we are going to talk today about how to create a killer invitation to tender or more accurately, how to find an agency, how to find the right agency, for your business to help you achieve what you want to achieve. That's the whole purpose of this podcast. It's not designed to ask you to choose us. It really isn't. It's to help you find the agency who's right for you.
Tell The Agency What You're Like
Dave: We're coming at this from an angle of having seen lots of opportunities to engage with businesses, documents, invitations, to tender, that miss the mark by a country mile. And agencies will pick and choose the opportunities that they respond to, I think it's fair to say, and so we want to give you the best chance of making sure that the agency that's right for you responds when you put the message out there. Is that fair?
Julie: Yeah, I think so. You don't want to rule anyone out because of the way you put the tender together, you want to actually make sure that the people that you need are actually going to get excited by it and want to work with you.
Dave: Yeah, that's right.
Julie: You're as much as evaluating the agencies, you're actually telling them what you're like and making sure that they're comfortable and they go, "Yeah, wow, I really want to work with these people," because you don't want to lose out on somebody because you make it sound that it's not going to be that fun a job to work to work on.
Dave: Yeah. And speaking of it not being that fun a job to work on, if we think for a moment, what you're actually looking to get when you're going out looking for somebody to help you with your website or whatever, and I think for the purpose of this podcast, we'll assume that you've got a website that isn't really performing, it's not delivering, and you really know that you need to create a new website and you want that website to generate inquiries, something basic like that. That's the kind of you think you need at eye level.
Julie: Usually it's the website's out of date or the company's moved forward and the website, basically, just either it isn't reflecting who you are now, or it looks really old fashioned, or it just isn't bringing in either any inquiries or the right kind of inquiries, that's usually where people are starting from.
Ask For Input
Dave: The reason you might miss out on securing the services or forming a partnership with the right agency are things like, for example, being too prescriptive in the document that you put together, assuming you put together a document, it might just be an email. You might even just have an idea and ring some people and have some conversations with them, but I would avoid being too prescriptive. Would you agree with that?
Julie: Definitely. If you're sending them a list of, it must do this, it must do that, it has to do, it has to do that, you're assuming that your knowledge is as up to date as possible. You're not giving any chance of input from people who might be using newer technology or have a different way of doing something. You're not allowing that creativity and you're telling them to do the thing that you know rather than asking them maybe for advice.
Dave: It's like hiring any professional services organisation, whatever they might do. I mean, we hire our accountants because help us run our business efficiently, not just because they know how to do accounts. I mean, we're relying on them to help us run that aspect, the financial aspects, of our business.
Julie: And we would hope that they would suggest ways that we might be able to do it better or say, "Look, Brexit just happened, so here's what you need to do now," rather than us telling them to do something.
Dave: Avoid being too prescriptive, is one of them. And I don't think we need to go into any more examples on that. The other one that is a big turnoff for a lot of agencies is asking them to do a significant amount of work as part of the process of evaluation. And one easy example of that would be asking them to do some design work, show us what you think our web homepage should look like, for example, as part of a tender process.
Julie: Fortunately that has gone out of fashion. But I mean, it used to be a big thing.
Don't Put The Cart Before The Horse
Julie: Not all the time, but it used to be accepted and expected that agencies would come out with loads and loads of adverts or designs or whatever it was. But it has gone away to a certain extent, because it's just really, really unfair on an agency to expect them to take their whole team off paid work for a whole week to do designs. But also, it doesn't necessarily get anyone anywhere because they're doing the designs before actually understanding what you need or who your audience are or anything. So it's pretty much a waste of everyone's time.
Dave: I would go so far as to say, if an agency agrees to do the design work just purely based on a document, an invitation to tender, for example, then that's a red flag, because how can they possibly know what you need without having a conversation? Unless the document goes into a huge amount of detail, which is never the case.
Julie: You'd have to have basically their entire marketing strategy and a possibility to ask them questions about it before you could do the right designs or designs there that you could be confident in. So it's not really productive other than seeing that they can do pretty designs, which you can see by asking them for pretty designs that they've done for other people, just as evidence that they can design. But getting them to design something for you without them really understanding your audience isn't helping anyone.
Dave: Yeah, that's right. So definitely avoid asking agencies to do some work, whether it's working out a search engine optimisation strategy for you or doing some design work for you or anything else, because that will almost certainly turn off the agencies who are ultimately going to do the best job for you.
Julie: And you're ruling out small agencies. You're only going to get really big ones that have got entire departments dedicated to doing proposals and doing speculative work and things like that, and there might be some smaller agencies that would be really good and absolutely spot on to work with, but they just don't have the resources to do all that work on the chance that they might get the job.
Don't Fret About The Budget
Dave: Yeah, that's right. The other thing I would say is often businesses dance around the budget. They either don't know what their budget should be, and that's fair enough, that's absolutely fine. Why should they know? Or they decide what the budget is based on nothing at all, based on either what they've decided they want to spend, which isn't either going to get them the outcome that they want. So I would suggest that don't... By all means, have conversations with prospective partners about budgets and try and establish whether or not you've got the kind of budget that that particular agency are going to need in order to do a good job for you, but almost don't sweat it because that's the job of the agency. Which I know sounds a bit odd, but it's the agency's job to figure out what you need, and once they figure out what you need, then the budget is dictated by that, I mean, irrespective of who does the work almost. So don't worry about the budget side of things.
Julie: It can be helpful to get an indication of what they've got available because sometimes it's not right for one agency, the way they work or what their cost structure is. It might just be, well, that's not going to work for us, but yeah, it should be a bit of a conversation, really, because is it just one chunk of money or maybe it's something that could be paid monthly over the course of the engagement. So there's different ways to skin a cat.
Dave: The retainer model is quite common amongst agencies these days, where you pay a set amount every month and the agency will deliver against that. And sometimes it's the agency will do a lot of work up front, so you're actually using the first three or four months of the retainer to get to a certain point, whether that's a new website or whatever it needs to be. So the days of needing a big lump of money in order to, say, build a new website, for the most part are in the rear view mirror.
Julie: Yeah. I mean, it could be. It can be very flexible. And I think rather than saying, well, look, there's a chunk of money or this is my... Then there are different ways of going about it. So yeah, don't get too hung up on that. An indication, maybe.
'Avoid being prescriptive, Don't ask them to do design work. Don't worry about the budget."
Dave: If you're focused on getting the right agency for your business, then avoid being prescriptive, IE, creating a document which tells the agency what you think you need, because it's a lot of work for you and the chances are you'll get it wrong. Don't do that. Don't ask them to do design work because that's a big turn off for a lot of people. Don't worry about the budget. Just say you're open to having an open conversation, an honest conversation, about budget. And maybe let them know that you're going to speak to three or four agencies as a process of trying to find the agency that's right for you. Give them a feel for that.
"If you're wanting to work closely with an agency, it's got to start from a position of trust"
Julie: Yeah, I think that's just being fair. If you're wanting to work closely with an agency, it's got to start from a position of trust, and if you're hiding stuff right at the beginning, then you're maybe not starting off on the right footing. So if you're open with them, they're more likely to be open with you and the relationship's just going to start off in a more healthy way.
Dave: That's right. So that approach to creating a document or an email or whatever it is that you're going to send out to people, we've established is the wrong approach if you want to find out the agency that is going to help you the most. So let's focus now on what the right approach would be.
Julie: That's probably more helpful. Definitely.
Focus On Outcomes
Dave: In our view, in essence, your document, your long email, or whatever it is, needs to focus on outcomes, right?
Julie: I think it needs to focus on where you want to end up at the end of the process. Outcomes, but also needs to focus on conversations. It needs to focus on thinking, strategy, and working together.
Dave: Did you just string a lot of words together there?
Julie: That makes perfect sense. I want the listeners to write in and tell me that they understood what I was saying there.
Dave: Don't hold your breath. I know what you're saying. I think when we say focus on outcomes, what we mean is, we don't mean focus on an outcome as, we want a smartphone friendly website, that's a given, that's not an outcome. When we talk about focusing on outcomes, we mean, right now our website doesn't generate any business for us. When we're searching Google all we find are our competitors, and we think we're missing a ton of business and we want to change that. That's an outcome.
Julie: Outcome for the business. Strategic outcomes, I think, rather than very tactical outcomes, like it needs to be red. The outcome is, we need more enquiries or we want to reflect the way that our brand has evolved over the last three years and we're a different type of company, and we're not giving the right impression anymore, things like that, bigger picture stuff.
Dave: And by the way, it would be perfectly acceptable to write a tender document or to write some form of document that you're going to send out to prospective agency partners that says, we need somebody to come and talk to us about what we could be doing, because it's not our area of expertise and we need some guidance. And that kind of document, and we do get them, that kind of document is a document which we absolutely love to see.
Julie: We need you to help us to figure out what we need.
Dave: Exactly that.
Julie: That's what we're good at.
"focus on thinking, strategy, and working together."
Dave: That doesn't mean you're giving the agencies the opportunity to write themselves a check. It really doesn't. It means you're saying to the agencies, we recognise that this isn't our area of expertise, it's yours, and we'd like to find a partner to help us wrestle all this stuff down and thrive online, and we'd like a partner who can help us grow our business in part by generating more business from our website, for example, our social media, or paid search, or any number of things that are in the digital marketing toolkit.
Julie: That's exactly it, I think. And that's where you are going to get the best results by saying, help us work out how to get from where we are now to where we want to be. We don't really know, and we want to work together to get there. I think that's what I was trying to say earlier.
Dave: Do you think that some businesses would feel far too exposed if they did that? They would be frightened at doing that because don't want to admit that they're all over the place, they're all at sea, with their digital strategy?
Julie: Possibly. But very few people have the expertise in house to do that. I mean, some people do and that's great.
Dave: Even of they've got marketing people in house, they still might not have the expertise to do it, we've found.
Julie: They might have an overall marketing strategy, they might have some of it worked out, but chances are they won't have the detail. Because you'd have to have a really big marketing team to cover off all the bits and pieces of digital marketing to put in and say, we've thought it all through and we know this is the right way to go. They're much better off to say, look, we've got halfway or we know roughly what we want to do, but we need some input, and then you're going to get a much better result that way, because you've just got more brains on the process. So you've got more input, you've got more people thinking about it, so the chances are that is going to give you a more rounded approach to getting there.
Dave: I would say, in the last, and I wasn't going to necessarily talk about this, but I'm going to in this instance, but I would say in the last 12 months, we've responded to only two invitations to tender, I would say. I think it's only as in we got more, but we only responded to two of them, and we won both of those jobs. The reason we responded to them was they said, more or less, we're not quite sure what we need, but we want to work with a partner who can help us figure all that out. And that was the thing that made us just sit up in our seats and go, right, this is perfect. We're a perfect fit, potentially a perfect fit. Obviously we need to meet them and get to know them and everything else.
Do Your Research
Dave: Which takes me onto the next thing I wanted to cover. If we agree that you should focus on outcomes and set aside all the tech and all the nonsense, if you like, all the geeky stuff, even the design, set it all aside, because you're only going to speak to agencies whose work you like, you're going to at least go and look at their websites, look at who they're working with, look at the work that they've done, say, I really like what they did with these guys and I really like that.
Julie: That's it, you convince yourself already that they've got the capabilities in house to do the design, to do the building a website, to do whatever else it is you need. So yeah, you'll have done your research or you'll have been recommended by someone else that you go and speak to these guys because they did a great job for us, or whatever. So you've got the basics, that they're capable of doing the thing, so the next step is you're going to speak to them and, can they do the thing, but for you?
Dave: That's right. So once you've figured out that, what you believe, within an element of wiggle room, what you believe the right outcome is, and it might even be that that gets modified when you start speaking to other agencies and things, what you should then do is create a short list of agencies, maybe two or three, four at the most, maybe.
Julie: I think any more than that, you'd probably just end up getting confused.
Dave: Absolutely. Anyway, sorry about that. So we create that short list, and that should be agencies whose work you like. And I would also say that agencies whose voice you like. Do you like what they say in their blogs, in their podcasts, in their content, and what they say on their website? Does it speak to you? Does it make sense to you? That kind of thing.
Julie: Are you all talking the same language? Do they have the same approach? Are you compatible, I guess. But also, are you convinced that they know what they're talking about? They're not just using some buzzwords and trying to pull the wool over your eyes, they genuinely do know their topic and they're going to give you the right advice, surely.
Dave: That document, or whatever you've created, goes out, it's focusing on what the outcome should be, it goes out to two or three agencies, and the next step for me is wait and see how they respond. If they respond and say, thanks for the invitation tender, we will respond to it. We'll send you a price and a proposal in the next seven days. Fine. If they respond and say, thanks for the proposal, sounds interesting, we'd love to have a conversation with you about it and get a bit more detail, that's what you really want to hear, surely.
Have A Conversation
Julie: I think if you're the client, yeah. If somebody's just going to send you a price, how do you know that they really understand what you want? I mean, yeah, maybe your document goes into a lot of detail, but I think you'd still want them to want to have a conversation with you first.
Dave: Well, do you not think from a client's perspective that some clients, they feel a little bit ill at ease about the whole thing and simply getting a proposal, a document and a price, makes them feel comfortable? An agency contacts them and says, thanks for the proposal, we'd really like to have a conversation with you, it sometimes puts people out of their comfort zone. It makes them feel slightly uncomfortable. But I think they should embrace that and have the conversation, is what I'm saying. But I can understand how it would make people feel slightly uncomfortable.
Julie: I think the best result else are always going to come if the client's going to be quite open minded, and I think approaching any invitation to tender with a very open mind on this is what I think I want, but I'm open to ideas, then it's just going to be a lot more productive.
Dave: If you do feel that that's going to be something that's going to make you quite uncomfortable and then try and push past that.
Julie: I would say so. You don't want to be choosing just based on a list of prices and not having met people or not having spoken to them.
Dave: Assume you meet with, again, two or three agencies. You like the work, you like what they say, and you meet with them, what are you looking to get? What are people listening to this, what should they be looking to get out of that conversation with the agency?
'You want them really, really trying to get under the skin of your business and understand your clients and understand how you operate and what your culture is'
Julie: I think if the agency, during that conversation, asks lots of questions and tries to understand their business, I mean, that's what you'd be hoping for. You don't want an agency coming in going, right, well, we've looked at your website, or we've read the proposal, and we think you should do this. You want them to be asking questions. You want them really, really trying to get under the skin of your business and understand your clients and understand how you operate and what your culture is, and really digging in and asking those questions.
Dave: Okay, so a green flag would be an agency who's asking questions around where the business is going and where the business has been. What a perfect world outcome looks like. A conversation like that.
Julie: I would say so, yeah.
Dave: A red flag would be, how do you feel about using WordPress, and do you need the site to be mobile friendly?
Julie: Do you want to change the colour?
Dave: To be honest, it's very unlikely you're going to have a conversation like that if you've gone through the other stages we've mentioned, where you've looked at agencies, you like what they say, you like the work that they've done, the chances are that the conversation will be productive, and it'll help you further whittle down. You might get down to, right, we've met three or four agencies, now we've whittled it down to two.
Julie: Yeah, because some of them just don't have an approach that works for you.
Dave: That's right. So what are we looking to get out of those early conversations then?
Julie: Part of it's chemistry. Can I work with these guys long term? Even if it's our project, our website project, there's still a lot of working together to be done, so you've got to, you don't have to be best buddies with them, but you've got to be able to work with them. So there's got to be some degree of liking them, understanding them, respecting them.
Dave: How do we get past the when we're all being nice to each other because we don't know each other, so it's, would you like a coffee, and everyone's being really nice. That's great. And then you start the project and everyone's really excited, but building the websites, doing digital marketing, this stuff's hard.
Julie: And it can be really stressful.
Dave: And it can be really stressful. Is it even possible to figure out that when the going gets tough, that these guys you've picked are going to be the ones that you want to be with?
Julie: You can't tell that for definite.
Dave: It's hard, isn't it?
Julie: But if you've actually spoken to them, met them either face to face or on Zoom and seen the whites of their eyes, if you like-
Dave: One thing I would say is, if somebody was sat in front of me and I was thinking hiring them, I'd say, well, I've looked on your website, some great work and some great projects, like the people you're working with. Tell me about some of the projects that you've worked on that went horribly wrong.
Julie: That's not a bad question, actually.
Dave: Because I mean, all agencies have had projects that haven't gone swimmingly. I mean, that's just life, isn't it? It'd be nonsense to assume anything other than that.
Speak To Their Clients
Julie: I think another thing, I mean, speak to some of their clients, speak to some of the agency's clients and find out what it's really like to work with them.
Dave: We always encourage people to speak to our clients.
Julie: Obviously they're going to pick people that they've had good projects with, but you will get a feel from people that they've worked with successfully, what it's like to work with them. So don't be afraid to ask for references or the names of people that you can maybe speak to and say, look, we're thinking of hiring these guys for this, this, and this, anything you would like us to know or what it's like? No harm in that at all.
Dave: Those conversations also allow you to talk about budget, and if you don't bring it up the agency are almost certainly going to bring it up. And if you're having two or three conversations and all of those conversations point towards needing a budget of three, four, 5,000 quid a month for the next 12 months to get you from where you are now to where you want to be, then at least you know that, well, this is all three independent, fully qualified, decent looking agencies have all said the same thing, and so you now know what you're up against in terms of what you require budget wise.
Julie: And if one of them's really extreme, either lower or higher, then I guess that would be a red flag as well. Chances are that they'll all come in fairly similar, and if not, then, one direction or the other, I would question that and have a look and see what's been missed or what's been added.
Dave: The thing to remember is, most decent agencies charge very similar rates. I mean, you're not going to find a fantastic agency charges 100 grand for something and another fantastic agency charge 20 grand for it, it's just not going to happen.
Julie: It should be similar.
Dave: They're always going to be there or there about. Some of the higher end agencies, just because of their reputation and maybe they've got a really shiny office, their overheads are higher, they are more expensive, for example, that does happen. But by and large, there's not a huge difference.
Julie: You wouldn't expect to have massive differences. I think the budget is probably one of the things lower down the list in terms of comparisons. It's more about, do these guys know what they're doing? Can I work with them? Will they give me what I need? Rather than how much it's going to cost.
Dave: Okay, so, in a nutshell, focus on outcomes. Where do you want to be in six months in 12 months? Focus on that in the document and then find some age agencies whose work you like, whose voice you can relate to, have conversations face to face or over Zoom, and gather all that information. And then it's just a case of figuring out... Some agencies might offer to do a little bit of work before you make a commitment. It's certainly something that we do, where we would maybe do a discovery session to make sure... Start a maybe two or three hour work session where you're actually trying to figure out what's needed, et cetera, and you will get a chance to work together, both with an option at the end to go, actually, this isn't going to be right for us, whether it's the agency or you, so that's another option.
Try A Foot In The Door Project
Julie: Yeah, if you've got a preferred one but you're just not totally sure, maybe you find a small project they can work on first.
Dave: They're often referred to as foot in the door projects, and it's an opportunity to do something real with a very tangible outcome, and do something where you're working together and see how that goes. That's not a bad idea.
Julie: Just to double check.
Dave: It might be something that you mentioned earlier, is figuring out what you need. So it might just be a scope.
Julie: Yeah, just scoping the whole project
Dave: Scoping project. Yeah, that's right.
Julie: You could do that with one agency and go, actually we don't really want to work with these people, and pick someone else to actually do the work. But you've still got the scope and you've still got that input, so you haven't lost anything.
Dave: I know you said you were listening to one of the podcasts when you were in the gym last week and you said it went a bit flat and it was a bit boring, so I'm not going to stretch this one out any longer.
Julie: Good plan. Let's not lose any listeners.
Dave: Yeah, that's right. Okay, so I think we've covered that reasonably well. If you need more questions answering on this subject, or indeed you want us to talk about other digital marketing related subjects, then just go to fromthecoalface.com and send us a message from the contacts tab.
Dave: In the meantime, anything else you want to say, Julie, on this subject?
Julie: No, I think that's plenty.
Dave: Okay. That's good. Bye for now.