The Fix for a Broken Higher Ed Marketing RFP Process

Finding good help is never easy. In fact, if you’re responsible for your university’s marketing and website efforts, procuring the expertise you need is often downright complicated.

In higher education, if you need an outside agency to help solve a marketing problem, you have to follow a formalized, bureaucratic process. You ask agencies to submit a proposal through an RFP (request for proposal). In other words, you ask someone you don’t know to submit a plan to solve a problem they know very little about.


To be sure, an RFP is an awkward way to initiate a business relationship. Or any relationship, for that matter. In some ways, participating in the RFP process can feel a bit like being on a reality dating show. You know almost nothing about your match going in. You’re there with many other suitors. The interactions are brief and highly structured, and the rules are often arbitrary and confusing.

The truth is, too few schools understand how to effectively navigate RFPs. And too few outside agencies have the gumption to push back on RFP processes that don’t make sense.

The Rowland Approach to Higher Ed RFPs

At Rowland, we pride ourselves on doing things differently. We believe that if you’re going to invest your time, resources and energy to fix a problem, you deserve a higher ed marketing agency that understands your vision, fits your culture and delivers impactful results. As your outside experts, we shouldn’t just look to check boxes.

We’ve seen our share of RFPs gone wrong. More importantly, we’ve been privileged to put into practice a more personalized approach that helps us get to know our clients better. This knowledge is invaluable in helping us understand the scope and nature of the problems our clients are trying to solve and the solutions they require. In our experience, outcomes only get better with a stronger school + agency relationship.

Here’s what we know about what doesn’t work in the higher ed marketing RFP process. And what does.

RFP Pain Points

The RFP process often feels clunky, to both school marketing departments requesting work and the marketing agencies hoping to provide it. And that’s absolutely understandable, considering the two sides try to communicate complicated concepts and detailed plans without ever meeting each other to discuss the general problem. In many cases, RFPs fail to capture the full scope of work accurately. This inability to provide a clear picture stems from a few common issues.

Big Scopes, Small (Predefined) Budgets

A defining element of any RFP is the allotted budget. Of course, a budget is locked in before the RFP is ever sent out — before a full understanding of the work involved is fleshed out. The problem is, if the school marketing team doesn’t have this understanding, they may not be able to accurately estimate the cost of a project. This can end up in a mismatch between the work requested and the funds available to pay for that work.

Some RFPs go as far as earmarking funds for specific items. Often, not all the items requested are necessary. Or, more likely, responding agencies may have other ideas on how to approach the work. An overly prescriptive budget is rarely ideally aligned to achieve your project goals. It also ties the outside agency’s hands and impairs their ability to deliver impactful advice.

Disconnected Decision-Making and Approval Process

Higher ed marketing teams can recommend a certain budget size for their projects. But financial decisions are typically made at a leadership level above them. As we’ve noted previously, higher ed leaders are frequently unfamiliar with marketing principles and best practices. Their ability to evaluate and understand marketing needs is limited, at best.

In ideal circumstances, decision makers setting budgets and approving marketing work would be well-suited to judge the quality and effectiveness of that work. Unfortunately, in higher ed, these decisions are frequently made by people disconnected from those efforts.

Misunderstanding of the Marketing Problem

RFPs often include requests for specific services, such as a website redesign. However, higher ed marketing teams don’t always understand the connection between the services they request and marketing principles and best practices.

We’ve heard the following rationale on more than one occasion: “We need a new website because our’s is old.” A new website may, indeed, be in order — but not because it’s old.

A new website is an investment into a flagship marketing instrument to support critical marketing goals. But before embarking on a redesign, schools need to consider their broad marketing strategy. This strategic, forward-looking thought process is necessary in order to tailor the new website to the school’s marketing needs. Plus, there are always reasons why the old site isn’t cutting it any more that go beyond its age.

A diagnostic or discovery phase is badly needed for a proper website rebuild, or any large scope project or campaign for that matter. Too often, however, this step is abbreviated or skipped entirely in higher ed RFPs.

Purchasing Bureaucracy

To have work approved, agencies’ RFP responses have to pass a university purchasing process. The requirements of such processes vary wildly, but most include a bevy of administrative rules. These restrictive regulations level the playing field and provide criteria for evaluating submitted proposals. But they rarely do a good job of differentiating between the competing agencies.

There is a large amount of diversity in the type of higher ed marketing agencies and marketing services available. You’re not always comparing apples to apples. A bureaucratic process can’t replicate the insights gained from researching the various possibilities that are available to higher ed marketing teams.

Talking to Vendors, Choosing the Right Higher Ed Marketing Agency

How do you gain those insights? You start by engaging a few potential agency partners in some exploratory discussions. Little by little, you expand your perspective and begin to see how your school fits into the greater higher ed ecosystem.

Most RFP processes don’t include an exploratory phase. The standard is a simple Q&A between the agency team and the school marketing team driving the project. But too few higher ed marketing teams ever take advantage of these opportunities. In all too many cases, they don’t even know what to ask the outside experts.

From an agency perspective, we want to be able to demonstrate the depth and breadth of our knowledge and expertise. It’s also important for us to establish trust and get a feel for the culture fit. When these communication opportunities are wasted, the evaluation process is frequently reduced to cost analysis — or picking the lowest bidder.
Cost is, of course, an important factor. But it should never be the defining one.

A Smoother Higher Ed Marketing RFP Process

The best advice we can offer higher ed marketing teams evaluating outside agencies is to talk to those vendors… early and often. There is incredible value in having the conversations. And we’d encourage you to have as many as possible before drafting your RFPs.

In our experience, the most effective RFP approaches elevate the process of alignment between the capabilities and expertise of the outside experts and the complexities and diversity of your school’s marketing challenges. This doesn’t happen in one Q&A session. It happens over a sustained period of exploration and partnership.

Shop Around

How do you know if you’ve found the right partner? You shop around for comparisons.

There’s nothing wrong with going on a few dates with a few different suitors. And it doesn’t feel like a game show when you’re driving the conversation. Be sure to take the time to ask the questions important to you. That’s how you make deeper than surface-level connections. It is also the best way to determine if the agencies you are considering are ready and/or able to support the capabilities and expertise you have on your existing internal team. Again, the more people you talk to, the more you’ll know.

Agencies have their own processes, areas of expertise and biases. The more agencies you talk to, the easier it becomes to spot those differences. Ideally, you’re going through all this vetting to establish a fruitful, long-term relationship. For these relationships to work, you need to establish a comfortable cultural fit.

Step Back, Think Objectively

After you have those conversations with various agencies, take a step back and rethink the marketing problem you are out to solve. Did you learn anything in your discussions that made you question your initial assumptions? Having those outside perspectives can reveal biases in your own thinking and processes. Perhaps there are alternative approaches that make just as much, if not more, sense.

Be Flexible and Open

Agencies pride themselves on being on the cutting edge of marketing. We are a valuable source of marketing know-how for short-staffed and under-resourced higher ed marketing teams. And we are eager to share that knowledge.

In our most successful relationships, we’ve acted as trusted counsels and helped guide our clients’ marketing strategies. In some cases we’ve helped shift and evolve philosophies and introduce more modern and strategic marketing methods.

A Better Way to Find Your Higher Ed Marketing Partner

Traditional RFPs tend to lock schools and agencies into solutions, products and processes that don’t always make sense. At Rowland, we think RFPs should be thought of more as requests for a partnership. Consider applying a more open-minded approach to the RFP process, and you will better leverage agency expertise and achieve more impactful marketing results.

If you’re ready to explore the complexities of your school’s marketing challenges, we’re ready to show you what we have to offer as your digital partners. Let’s talk.

Ready to talk about your next project?

At Rowland we take pride in being knowledgeable, experienced, and accessible. We're ready to talk about how we can help you meet your higher ed marketing goals.