Should Brands Put Their Paid Media Accounts To Tender vs. Word of Mouth?

When choosing a digital agency through tender, it's vital to create a clear brief, evaluate agency experience, team structure, performance reporting, and target achievement. Balancing benefits like expertise with potential drawbacks such as trust issues ensures successful partnerships

Growing your business is a careful, long-term process. If, like most firms, you have your eyes set on building revenue through strategic partnerships, you could spend years networking and negotiating before you find a good fit. However, many large businesses choose to put their firms out to tender by inviting potential suppliers to pitch their services.

Outsourcing digital marketing, or tendering for digital marketing contracts, can remove the need for you to manage online advertising, outreach, SEO etc by yourself. In fact, more than 42% of UK business owners no longer handle digital marketing in-house.

Tendering differs from the standard digital pitch process in terms of formality, requirements and timeframe – let’s start at the very beginning.

WHAT DOES TENDERING MEAN?

Tendering involves inviting companies to bid for specialist contracts. It is similar to regular outsourcing, and it is particularly popular in the public sector, where more than 70,000 contracts were tendered in 2023 alone.

Businesses can go to tender in any sector, including digital marketing and brand development. In order to do this, you release a tender pitch template and invite suppliers to file a response, often starting with an RFI (request for information) from a shortlist of agencies, followed by RFP (request for proposal), pitch/pitches and then decision-making (with a few steps in between on occasion; chemistry, ethical review, etc).

With digital marketing and many other industries, partnerships form in many different ways. This could be a quick recommendation that leads to a fast onboarding or a small invite to a couple of companies, from a tender point of view, this relates to a longer term process that has specific milestones (often employed by larger brands).

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF GOING TO TENDER?

There are plenty of great reasons to put areas of a business out to tender. For example, it’s an easy way to collaborate with experts on the areas of your enterprise in which you might not have specific expertise, such as digital marketing and branding.

Beyond this, opening pitches for tender provides an excellent opportunity to network and explore talent. 

Even if you don’t choose a specific supplier based on their tender proposal, you might find that they’re connected to someone more suitable for your needs.

Tendering contracts also gives you an insight into how the working relationship might look between you and any companies that pitch to you. 

This will save you time and headaches later if, for example, your chosen supplier looks great on paper but doesn’t align with your brand.

Arguably, it’s an option that drives more competitive value than other methods of attracting contractors and outsourced help.

WHAT ARE THE DRAWBACKS OF THE PROCESS?

The first major drawback of tendering is about trust – how do you truly know that the statistics and case studies provided by suppliers are truthful, let alone indicative of how they’ll work with you? Following the post-covid digital boom that lead to an influx of agencies/consultants/contractors claiming the world with barely any experience, it’s even more important to scrutinise in 2024.

You’re placing a lot of trust in what people say on paper, which means that it’s still important to get a feel for your prospective suppliers in person.

Tendering also means that you’re a little removed from the collaborative process. When you outsource to an agency of any kind, you’re handing work over to an external team who you typically won’t see on a day-to-day basis. This takes away significant control and makes it harder for you to build working rapport and relationships.

What’s more, tendering is a time-consuming, laborious process. Government advice suggests that the tender process for non-complex procurement should take no more than 120 working days (as a general rule) to award a contract after notification, but for digital marketing, this is likely to be a much shorter process.

It’s estimated that roughly 60% to 65% of all strategic partnerships fail, typically due to clashes of opinion, a lack of trust and a failure to outline expectations. Therefore, it’s important to create a tendering brief that clearly explains who you are and what you’re looking for.

WHY YOU NEED A CLEAR AND FAIR BRIEF

Tendering is about finding the right fit for your business. Therefore, the best way to kick-start this process is to produce a tender brief that’s clear, concise and fair to all parties.

A poor tender pitch could result in you working in an unsuitable partnership. 

Also, be clear on your values and what’s important to your company. For example, it’s estimated that only around half of companies currently consider marketing sustainability when strategizing and tendering. This could be a point that you may want to focus on in your brief.

Moreover, a poor brief can lead to confusion and guesswork, which can be frustrating and potentially harmful to your business. Your pre-tender needs to answer questions and leave minimal room for doubt.

A brief should also be fair and inclusive, giving all eligible suppliers the opportunity to win your contracts.

5 QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK YOUR PROSPECTIVE AGENCY

If you’re considering tendering with digital agencies, here are a few questions you could ask before deciding on a partner:

  1. Have you worked in this industry/vertical before? If so, can you provide case studies?

    If so, great, this could be a perfect insight into how they will work with you. That said, don’t be put off if a prospective partner hasn’t got direct experience, it’s often the case that they just haven’t had the opportunity (yet).

  2. Who will be working on my account, and what does the team structure look like?

    More often than not, agencies roll out C-suite and various directors for pitch then when it comes to doing the actual work they fade away to be replaced with a small % of senior resource, account managers and a bank of juniors. Nail down from the very start who you will be working with, if they’re not in the pitch, ask why.

  3. How do you report on performance? If multiple channels up for pitch, how do you approach this?

    Arguably the most critical part of digital marketing, this is an absolute essential to get right when choosing a partner. Let’s say you’ve put paid search, organic and affiliates out for tender, each of these will likely sit within different teams at the prospective agency. You most likely don’t want to be looking at 3x reports each week/month/quarter, all attributing differently with no central source of truth.

    Dig into the detail, ask how and then ask to see how, explain exactly what you want provided and how they will achieve this (request anonymised examples too to see this in action).

  4. Provide your targets and KPIs and ask how they are going to achieve these?

    This question is critical in determining how the agency will work. If you put forward your minimum ROAS or desired ranking positions for terms x, y or z and the agency replies with “yes, of course we can“, this is where you need to scrutinise down to the last detail to find exactly how they will achieve this (or not).

    Honesty is always the best policy and if it’s too good to be true, it most likely is. On countless occasions we have been invited to pitch and when presented with targets have given our honest opinion, caveats and recommendations, many times having to explain that “as it stands, based on these reasons, this is not achievable within timeframe x“. It may not be what you want to hear, but it could be the step needed to reassess your approach and a step closer to finding an agency who will truly challenge you.

  5. Why should we choose your agency?

    The services offered by digital agencies are not particularly expansive, take paid search for example, there’s over 7.5k agencies in the UK offering this service and outside of a handful of differences (technical capability, proprietary systems, etc) the service offering is largely the same and the size of agency/clients worked with operates on a sliding scale.

    They may have great results in your sector, case studies to back it up, and more, which is a great indicator that they will do a good job executing on your brief but does not answer the question at hand.

    Look for a partner that truly offers something different and ask questions around ethics, sustainability, chemistry, etc. Chemistry plays a huge role outside of being capable to do the job, if this means having a social event prior to making a decision, do it. This could be the best decision you’d make that often gets overlooked by slide decks and forecasts.

IN SUMMARY

With a clear, explicit brief, and a mind to research different agencies and experts specialising in your niche, you might find it easier than you think to tender a long-term partnership. If you do want to go down this formal route, keep the shortlist manageable, inviting 10+ agencies to pitch with a detailed brief can become very costly, and it’s unlikely that all 10 will be aligned with the type of partner you have in the back of your mind.

Don’t be afraid to explore your options, there’s more out there than just network agencies. There’s no hiding from the fact that the barriers to entry in this industry are non-existent and so-called agencies are popping up every day, however, if you take time to sift through the noise you could find a great potential partner/s to throw into the mix who could stand tall against the big players.

As a final thought, this quote from Martin Jones (AAR’s director of advertising) offers a great perspective on this process to take away:

“Only about 10%-15% of work shown in pitches ever gets made. We think it is about people, not about solving everything in a three-week pitch period.”

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