Marriott: Who Should Be the Key Decision-makers in Your Next ESP RFP?


Much has changed in the world of email marketing in the last 15 years.  Volumes are up, revenues are up, CPMs are down-and those are just a few of the big changes in the industry.  But one of the biggest changes is in the nature of the vendor/client relationships themselves. Specifically, I am referring to a huge shift from full-service vendor/client email relationships to hybrid and self-service vendor/client relationships.  First, a few definitions of these terms:

  • Self Service:   Brand executes campaigns with an internal team
  • Full Service:   ESP executes all email campaigns on behalf of the Brand
  • Hybrid/Collaborative:   ESP handles certain types of campaigns and/or helps with overflow and ad hoc campaigns while Brand handles most of the ongoing work

Back in the days when the predominant relationship that Brands had with their ESPs were full-service, the platforms were not necessarily intuitive, nor easy-to-use (nor did they have to be).  To be able to leverage all the features took a lot of experience on that particular platform, something that Brands had neither the time to spend nor the staff to develop.  So the work was done by teams at the ESPs, with Brand paid higher CPM’s as well as per campaign fees.

In the days of these types of relationships, the vendor selection process was very different than it is now.  Sure, it was still a features war between the platforms.  However when push came to shove, the real yardstick used by most Brands and their procurement teams was the cost, specifically the CPM.  So when it came down to which ESP to select, that decision was usually made by a combination of procurement and the senior email marketing person (with an “OK” from finance).  Meaning the decision was very top-down.  The decision had little impact on the day-to-day email team at the Brand because they weren’t using the tool for much more than pulling reports (if even that).

Over the last 10 years, however, there has been a shift where most Brands today are either self-serve or hybrid relationships.  While several factors have contributed to this shift, the one with the most significant impact has been the drastic improvement in the usability of the tools allowing them to be used with very limited training required.  Brands that wanted to move campaign production to in-house teams could do so without a lot of training.  Beyond the cost-savings of doing it themselves, those who actually used the platforms to create campaigns became much smarter email marketers at a much faster rate.  I saw that myself when I was running the email team at Acxiom.  There I found that, generally speaking, my best account people were those who started out as campaign managers on our platform and moved up the ranks, rather than people I hired from the outside.  And I assume that remains equally true today at the ESPs like Zeta and Cheetah with large services teams.

Anyway, back to the topic.  Another significant shift in the last 10 years has been the increasingly complex integrations between the ESPs and the Brands’ existing infrastructures.  So today, with ESPs tightly integrated into Brands’ tech stacks, and broader swatches of Brand teams using them, many more people on the Brand side will be impacted by the decision as to which vendor to partner with.   And everyone impacted by the decision at the Brand has point-of-view and agenda that don’t necessarily align with enryone elses. 

Let’s take a look at some of the stakeholders we work with in RFPs managed by Marketing Democracy:

  1. VP, Director level
    These folks are responsible for the overall email program and tend to have several priorities when selecting an email partner including a) stability/reliability of platform, b) availability of value-added services like analytics and creative, c) ability to leverage various sources of data in real-time before it gets stale, and d) robust reporting and analytics capabilities
  2. IT
    The IT department often focuses on the ability of the email vendor to play the data “where it lies” (as opposed to the folks above who don’t care whether or not it needs to move around) and overall data secruity.  They appreciate the control that gives them.  This usually takes the shape of an on-premise solution like Adobe, or a hybrid like MessageGears.  Or they gravitate towards solutions that offer easy connections and extensive APIs like SparkPost.  Some of the platforms preferred by the IT team don’t come with marketer-friendly UI’s.  Users must be a little more tech savvy to get the most value from the platform (something not a problem for your IT person).  And the usability of these platforms can be an issue for…
  3. Campaign Production
    These are the day-to-day people who actually use the ESPs platform to create emails, do segmentation, set-up tests, create reports, and analyze results.  They are big fans of automations, wysiwyg interfaces, quick turnarounds, and intuitive features and functionality.  Platforms that make their daily jobs easier are the ones they are most likely to be drawn to (as well they should).  Also high on their list is the ability to do things like adding tables without needing the intervention of the ESP team or their own IT folks.

These are the three major constituencies of every RFP Marketing Democracy has managed.  There are often other stakeholders including mobile, loyalty program, and content marketing (think publishers and other media), and of course, procurement.  But these are the big three.  And you can see how divergent their interests tend to be in selection criteria.  So who do we think should be the primary decision-maker in an ESP RFP?

Assuming you are conducting a thorough RFP, the answer to that question depends on which stage of the process you are in. 

When it comes down to the final decision, we believe the people who should have the most influence are those in the third group—campaign production.  But between the beginning of a selection process and the final decision there are several discrete steps in our RFP process, in which each of the stakeholdering groups plays a major role in decisions.   Let’s break them down:

  1. Requirements document/RFP
    Our RFPs kick-off with a customized list of 250-300 requirements to which that each paricipating vendor must respond.  The purpose of this phase is to give each of the vendors the opportunity to tell us and our clients how they can support each of the requirements.  So the responses must be detailed because they are going to be scored by our Clients against the responses of every other participating vendor.  So every stakeholder who scores the responses is providing the input as to who should advance to the next phase.  While the requirements include a number pertaining to campaign production, the total volume of them usually results in the stakeholders in groups 1 and 2 have the majority of influence. 
  2. In-person presentations of Use Cases
    When they are sent the requirements document, vendors are also given 4-5 unique client Use Cases.  The 4 vendors chosen to advance from the first round are invited to presnt in person.  The purpose of these in-person meetings is to give each of the remaining vendors the opportunity to show us and our clients how they can address each of the Use Cases.  Once again, all of the stakeholders at the client are asked to score the vendors on their presentations.  As in the first phase,  the stakeholders with the most influence on the outcome tend to be groups 1 and 2 combined.  However, now that we are down to two vendors, the campaign production team steps into the spotlight.
  3. Sandboxes
    Sandbox environments are intended to enable our clients to get familiar with each vendor’s solution and test-drive each feature of the proposed solution/software to ensure that it meets the requirements and works per the information provided in the RFP and during onsite presentations.  While all of the stakeholders are still involved to one degree or another, at this point the process the final selection rests primarily in the hands of the client’s campaign production team—the folks who will be using the selected platform on a daily basis.  And that is exactly how it should be.

Marketing Democracy strongly believes that Brands today, the final selection of ESP should absolutely be a bottom-up decision.  And while you might readily agree with that statement,  you’d be surprised how often in the RFP process (except ours) their input is either ignored, or worse, isn’t even solicited.  Why is this so?  I think it’s a combination of several factors:

  1. When relationships were full service, no one on the Brand team actually used the tool, so there was no one to ask and the RFP process never changed
  2. Campaign production people tend to be more junior than the IT and Marketing folks involved in the RFP.  “What do they know?”
  3. The campaign team can “figure it out”; what really matters is XYZ…..

As I see it, there is a huge downside to ignoring the wishes of the campaign production team in the vendor selection process.  Assuming they will take the time to “figure out” a platform they didn’t help select (and might not have selected if given the option) is taking a huge chance with your email marketing.  Time and again I have seen situations where a lot of the advanced features and functionality of an incument email provider were not utilized by the campaign production team.  They were simply unwilling to make the effort to learn “clunky” software.  But there is one thing worse than not involving them in the decision.  And that’s involving them, only to have their selection over-ruled by someone in management.  In all the RFPs we have managed over the years the only client unhappy with its decision was one where the team’s choice was overturned by the CMO thanks to a well-timed call from the incumbent’s CEO.  One year later they were already planning their next RFP.

So in your next ESP RFP remember, it it always advisable to involve all the stakeholders in the selection process.  But the closer you get to your final selection, the more you should value the input of your internal campaign production team.  When they have a say in the selection of the vendor, they also have a stake in making that vendor a success.  And that will be crucial in the long run.  RFPs are too much work not the get it right the first time!


Title: Who Should Be the Key Decision-makers in Your Next ESP RFP?
About: RFP Process
Audience: Email Marketers
Copyright 2019, Only Influencers, LLC