How to Find the Best Higher Ed Marketing Agency Partner

November 16, 2021

Finding a higher ed marketing agency partner for your college or university can be a challenging and high-stakes process. When it comes to institutional marketing, there are few decisions that are more important.

But it doesn’t have to be a headache—and can even be quite rewarding.

Here at CCA, we’ve seen countless RFPs—good, bad, and in-between—and used them to compile our own list of best practices. In this article, we break down the steps to find the best higher ed marketing agency (even if it’s not CCA) that fits with your culture, team, and project goals. 

Step 1: Decide whether you really need an RFP—or if you can skip it altogether.

While many schools have strict guidelines around the procurement process, some allow for much more flexibility when it comes to agency selection. If your institution falls into the latter category, you may want to think about bypassing the RFP route. 

Some alternatives to consider: 

  • Ask colleagues for referrals. Is there a higher ed marketing agency they’ve worked within the past and loved? Or perhaps one who did great work for the school years ago who would be worth bringing back in?
  • Start with an RFI (request for information). RFIs are an information-gathering tool to learn basic information about agencies. As opposed to RFPs, which ask for bids related to specific projects, RFIs ask for things like company history, size, case studies, and services provided. They can be helpful if you’re not yet certain about the details of your project but first want to get a feel for potential agency partners. More specific questions can be addressed later in the process.
  • Schedule a few calls. Once you’ve got a shortlist of agencies you’re considering, set up introductory calls so you can meet the leadership teams and get a feel for their capabilities and agency personality. Share the goals of your project, which the agencies can use to shape their proposals.

Step 2: Develop the RFP.

If you decide to use an RFP for your agency selection, it’s important to develop it thoughtfully and strategically. Good RFPs lead to good proposals (and good agency partners), whereas bad RFPs have the potential to alienate the agencies that could be your best fit. 

A good starting point is to identify the purpose of the RFP.

The primary goal is to find the right fit for both parties. No agency is a good fit for every institution—and even an excellent agency may not be the right one for your project or team. Finding a good cultural match can be just as important as finding an agency that can meet your budget or timeline. 

Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t be too prescriptive. A good rule of thumb is that the RFP should never attempt to solve the problem behind the project. If the project in question is an enrollment campaign, the RFP shouldn’t need to lay out the details of the media buy, tactics, and budget allocation. The agency should be able to make those recommendations after they’ve done their discovery and gotten to know you. For that matter…
  • Don’t require detailed project plans in the proposal. Some RFPs ask agencies to include full media plans or provide the solution for their school’s low brand recognition—all in the proposal. Just as the RFP shouldn’t try to solve the problem, neither should the proposal. A good agency will base those decisions on research and strategy, all of which happens after the job is rewarded. Otherwise, the answers you’ll get will be generic and likely not applicable to your situation.
  • Don’t require a rigid structure for the proposals. A proposal is an agency’s chance to showcase not only their services, but also their personality, their writing and design chops, and what makes them unique. When an RFP stipulates that proposals stick to just a few pages, or it requires a certain format for each piece of information, the proposals you receive won’t be as reflective of the agency’s style and skills. 

A good RFP should hit the right mix of informative and open-ended. Here are key elements to include:

  • General information about your institution. You don’t need to include the school’s full history—respondents can always track that down on their own—but a few paragraphs of relevant information will help agencies customize their proposals. Include some situational background related to the project at hand, including whether there are any recent major developments or changes, such as a leadership shift, a new strategic plan, a new campaign, or a sudden downturn in enrollment.
  • A clearly defined scope of work for the project. Be sure to include the basic elements needed along with the goals of the project, but resist the urge to get too prescriptive about the process or the details. If you’re looking for an agency partner to recommend some elements of the scope—say, what type of media tactics to include in a plan—make that clear.
  • Notes about what’s negotiable and what’s not. You may be working towards a hard deadline for tactics to drop in the marketplace, in which case respondents should know that so they can determine whether they’ll be able to fit the project schedule into their workload. However, if there’s some flexibility on timing, indicate that in the RFP.
  • A budget, if possible. It’s not always possible to include budget specifics, but any information you can provide here will go a long way. If you can’t provide a hard number, a range is still helpful. In the absence of a budget, an agency is playing a difficult guessing game—particularly if the scope is open-ended. For example, if an RFP requests “creative assets,” an agency may include a full suite of materials in their project cost (like video, photography, out of home, print, digital) all of which may be unrealistic in light of the budget. If an agency knows the real budget, they’ll be able to better tailor their scope of work for the specifics of the project. Ultimately, being honest and upfront about the allocated project funds will save time for both you and agency respondents.
  • An opportunity for agencies to ask questions. Allowing for calls with prospective respondents is ideal. It’s an opportunity for agencies to better customize their proposals and a preview of what they’re like to work with. Expect questions about the timeline, budget (trust us: if it’s not included in the RFP, agencies will always ask!), whether you’re open to alternate processes or solutions to meet your goals, available research and creative assets, client team, and more. 

Step 3: Research higher ed marketing agencies.

As you decide on which agencies to send the RFP, remember that more is not always better.

Being thoughtful and selective in developing your list will streamline the selection process and ensure that your respondents are qualified for the project. If agencies know that a client has done their research upfront and that they’re only one of a few to receive the RFP, they’re more likely to respond. 

Below are some ideas for creating your shortlist of agencies:

  • Decide on a set of criteria: Determine what type of agency is your ideal fit. And don’t go this part alone! Include the team of people at your institution who will be working most closely with the agency and ensure that you’re all on the same page. Some things to consider: Should the agency be local? Small or large? Industry specialists, or a generalist firm?
  • Crowd-source. See if anyone on your team had a good experience with a higher ed marketing agency and would recommend them. Talk to colleagues at other schools who have done similar projects and ask who they used, who they didn’t end up picking, and if they feel they made the right choice.
  • Do your research. Is there another school’s website that you’ve been drooling over? A genius digital campaign you’d love to copy? Look it up and see who did the work! Scan lists of awards, like HEMR’s Educational Advertising Awards, and look for agencies whose work looks like a fit for your project. Make sure this isn’t your only method of selecting firms, as awards don’t tell the whole story—but this can help you find some hidden gems you wouldn’t otherwise have come across. 

Step 4: Evaluate proposals. 

Once you’ve got a group of proposals in hand, the fun part can begin!

Now it’s time for you and your team to narrow down the list and ultimately select your best-fit partner. As you go through this selection process, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Be thoughtful about who to include. Identify a mid-size (6-8 people is ideal) group of people to include in your selection team, with representatives from various departments who will be involved with the project. Make sure to include the person or people who will actually be working directly with the agency! Some institutions make the mistake of including only senior leadership in the selection process, which can lead to the person who will actually manage the project feeling like the winning agency was just dumped on them.
  • Don’t be afraid to give a second chance. If there’s an agency you really like but there’s something wrong with the proposal (budget, scope, timing, etc.), give them a chance to revise it before you cut them.
  • Bring in your top selects. Ask your top picks to present to the selection team. Try not to be too controlling on what the content of the presentation is; let the agency show you what they’re all about. Save time at the end for questions, and use the time to get at things that wouldn’t be included in a proposal. Questions like “Tell me about a client relationship that went south. How did you handle it?” can be quite revealing.
  • Pick your agency partner. Notify the winning agency, then pop the champagne together to celebrate! When informing the other agencies of your selection, offer to share constructive feedback about why they weren’t ultimately selected. Those conversations can be incredibly helpful for agencies and could leave the door open for future partnerships. 

Ready to find out whether CCA is the right higher ed marketing agency for your project? Let’s talk! 

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