While cities are quite familiar with putting together RFPs, the procurement of branding, engagement, and destination marketing services is quite different than your average purchase that cities make.
If you’re writing a RFP to purchase equipment or a construction project, the process and deliverables will be the exact same across all submittals. However, with creative and consultative services, there is a wide range in process and even deliverables from firm to firm. Your goal is to first get the best firms to respond to the RFP and then to be able to decipher, from their submission, which firm is the best fit for your community.
There can be hurdles or steps in the RFP requirements that deter quality firms from responding as well as formatting or process requirements that rob you of the opportunity to see which firm is truly the best fit for your community.
The following article outlines key things to think about as you are crafting a RFP for city branding, public engagement, and destination marketing initiatives.
Before you commit down a path on your own, it is important to consider if there is an opportunity to collaborate with other departments or organizations within the community. Place branding should be as comprehensive as possible but is often siloed. You often have many different departments and organizations all promoting and selling the community but doing so in different ways. There is the City Government, CVB, Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development, individual districts, the County and private developers all promoting and selling the same place. This can create confusion in the marketplace and inefficiencies. Before your department or organization sets out on your own, you should consider if there is an opportunity to collaborate with other departments or organizations within your community (or maybe even a regional play) to pull your resources and have a greater impact that benefits everyone. Check out this recent podcast episode on this exact topic.
A great example of that is the work we did in Waupaca, WI. This was a collaborative effort between the City of Waupaca and the Waupaca Chamber & CVB. While they have different goals, at the end of the day they are serving and selling the same place and creating a brand platform that is comprehensive across the city is more effective than each group doing their own thing.
Another great example of this is the Greater Topeka Partnership. They not only created a comprehensive brand platform, but actually restructured city entities and created an umbrella brand and organization that supports 8 distinct efforts in the community including the chamber, economic development, tourism, downtown, and more.
While this takes collaboration amongst organizations and departments, a great place to start if you’re not sure is with a City Branding Workshop. In the workshop you can bring together different individuals from the various groups and through workshop activities start to get a sense of what that would look like in your community. A workshop is a great place to start before diving into a branding initiative.
Now that you’re ready to prepare the RFP here are some practical tips to consider when deciding any formatting requirements you may require in your RFP.
Number of Pages, Sections & Tabs
Branding, engagement and destination marketing is largely about communication and design. How a firm responds to your RFP is the perfect opportunity to see first hand how they communicate. Therefore, we recommend you avoid dictating formatting rules or page limits. While responses that all follow the same exact format may make it easier on the selection committee to compare side-by-side, you lose the ability to see how that firm would choose to communicate if left up to them.
How a consultant organizes and communicates their message and process across the submittal is a key indicator of their ability to deliver communications and design for your community. If you dictate everything you can’t see how they would have communicated without that direction or those constraints.
Goals over Deliverables
While you should list core deliverables that are essential, just list the basics. Based on your goals the consultant should fill in the rest and communicate to you what the process and deliverables need to be in order to achieve those goals. Just like with formatting requirements, if you overly dictate the process and deliverables, you rob yourself of the opportunity to see what that consultant would recommend. This is the key element you should be looking for in a submittal. For example, if they aren’t leading a branding project with public engagement, that’s a red flag. However, if you state in your RFP that engagement is an essential phase and outline the deliverables required, then the consultant will just regurgitate that back to you in their process. Is that in there because they understand it and lead with that or is it in there just because you mentioned it in the RFP? Instead see if they bring it up, what deliverables they recommend, and how they propose to accomplish your goals.
Remove as many hurdles as possible
Limit the forms and paperwork to only the minimum requirements. Many of the forms that cities require to be completed can be handled further down in the process once you have chosen the right consultant and are finalizing the contract. While sometimes necessary, it is important to know that requiring consultants to create accounts to get access to the RFP and then requiring pages of forms on the submittal could limit the amount of firms that see and respond to your project. This limits your candidate pool, and your staff, residents, and stakeholders deserve to choose from the best.
We also recommend allowing digital submissions. While 10 hard copies of a proposal may make it easy on your team to sit around and flip through together, it’s important to realize that adds to the submittal costs across multiple firms and that cumulative cost ultimately goes back to you. If all consultants’ submittal expenses across all projects are lowered, that saves you money.
Background & History – a pitch is a red flag!
Your community’s goals along with what branding and marketing efforts you’ve already done is far more valuable to mention in a RFP than pages about the community and its history. This History of the community is extremely important in the actual project but not as relevant in the submission. This is because the RFP is not about getting ideas or pitches on how to uniquely approach your community but rather the process and strategy the consultant will use to uncover that unique strategy. Look for a proven process and approach. You want a well defined process that has been perfected across numerous projects. The process should not be unique to your community. Instead the process should uncover what is unique to your community.
If any firm is pitching ideas or solutions in their RFP that is a red flag. That is like a doctor prescribing before a diagnosis. You shouldn’t be able to offer any meaningful insight without the full discovery, research and engagement process.
If you have a defined budget, be upfront with it. We have a culture that is uncomfortable talking about money but we are all professionals. Based on your goals and budget, the consultant should be advising you on the best way to spend that budget and crafting a plan that is based on that.
Be clear on your requirements
On the submission details page of your RFP, it’s important to clearly list all of your vital requirements. We recommend including a numbered list that can easily be referenced.
This could include the following:
Do your research. Instead of only publishing a RFP to your city website or distributing through RFP platforms, do your own research and find firms whose process you feel would be a good fit. Reach out to those firms either through their website or by mailing a letter to let them know about the RFP and invite them to respond. Don’t leave it to chance that the best firms will find your RFP.
Once you’ve defined your collaborative team, written a great RFP, researched potential firms and distributed it, it is now time to evaluate the responses you’ve received.
Local vs National
As an agency that works with cities and districts, we are huge believers in shopping local and supporting local businesses. However, with projects as big and as important as these, it needs to be about finding the best regardless of location. Finding the best fit firms is the best thing you can do to support your local businesses and economy. Additionally, an outside firm provides a fresh perspective that is essential when it comes to branding, engagement, economic development and destination marketing. There can be things your community thinks are obvious but that it’s not communicating and there can be things your community is so close to that they take for granted and don’t realize how special they are. We’re big believers in the saying “You can’t see your label from outside the jar.” Because of this we think it’s important to invite submittals from across the country and don’t score submittals based on location. Your local residents, businesses and economy deserve the best – regardless of where they are from and the best will have a defined engagement process that uncovers what makes your community unique.
Avoid an overly rigid Scoring System
Avoid an overly rigid scoring system that is more about grading the submittal than finding the right fit for your community. Rigid scoring systems can often end up with second or third best for the project. We recommend having your committee members identify their top 3-4 choices. If after that there is not a clear list of finalists, then have a discussion about those on the fence and debate who should be a finalist. If there are still any stuck on the fence, include them and see what they saved for the interview – they may have that secret sauce that pushes them over the top.
Before interviewing finalists be clear about any specific questions you have or elements of the process you’d like to hear more about. That said, be sure to give them time to present to you additional information or elaborate on certain elements of their process. In person interviews are great but should not limit or affect your decision. A video conference should be perfectly fine and will likely be utilized during the project as well – just have the basic tech ready to go.
Remember to be cautious of any prescribing before diagnosis. Don’t ask questions that should require having gone through a discovery and research phase to properly answer and likewise be wary if they are already pitching specific ideas. The conversation should be all about process, communication, deliverables and expectations. When discussing budget it’s important to explore areas you could scale up or down depending on the goals and budget as well as what elements or phases are vital and can’t be cut from the process.
From the very beginning when you define the deadlines for questions and submittals, it’s important to also communicate your timeline for naming finalists and making an ultimate decision. Every single submission deserves a response even if they aren’t named as a finalist. Be clear about your expectations of when a consultant should expect to hear back and update them if that changes. Firms that are named finalists in the RFP process will often start blocking out schedules and limiting other proposals they are going after so that they can be certain they have the bandwidth to deliver if selected. Therefore, it is professional courtesy to communicate as quickly and openly with both good and bad news.
If a firm is not selected and asks for feedback on why, it is a professional courtesy to provide that information. Consultants will spend a good amount of time and money responding to your RFP and it is the right thing to do. If a firm is named a finalist and interviews, there is even greater responsibility to provide timely response and feedback if not selected.
The most important thing to remember is that the goal of the RFP is to find the best consultants that you want to speak further with in an interview. It’s not about seeing who can follow your RFP instructions but rather who can communicate their process most effectively and whose process seems like the best fit for your community. Don’t complicate it to the point that you’re preventing quality firms from responding. Additionally, don’t outline the entire process and deliverables for them – let the consultant show you they have a proven process to achieve your goals.