Eleven Tips for Successful Photo Shoots
Starting a Disloyalty Program

Not Good Proposals. Great Proposals.

Sign Here

With titanic battles happening nowadays over new business, it's crucial that you craft great proposals to win life-sustaining projects.

Not good. Great.

In the past, I've worked at agencies where proposal writing consisted of creating a laundry list: one final logo in the necessary formats, two rounds of client revisions, and so on. That worked fine when the money was flowing. Nowadays, the cost of entry is higher. Clients look at the deliverables, the price, and then start to haggle without mercy. Maybe that worked a few years ago. Not so much now. If you're bidding on a serious project for a new client, you need something a bit more... thorough. Be prepared to ante up with a great proposal.

Here's what to keep in mind when you write it.

Great proposals are a (formulaic) journey. They are well-crafted stories about how you'll help the client fulfill their design needs through:

  • Your clear, articulate understanding of their current business problem
  • Your proposed solution (in the form of a set of deliverables and technological/media considerations)
  • Your professional experience and how it applies to their business problem
  • Your stable, successful design process and a schedule outlining how their project would be fulfilled via that stated process

Concocting a document based off this formula is the initial cost of entry for any serious client engagement. Everything else in the document is icing.

Great proposals pre-digest the business problem and hint at an outcome. It's not enough to restate what you heard in discussions with the client. Show your understanding of the competitive landscape. Describe how they're perceived in relationship to their peers. You can demonstrate your competence through some simple research, sifting blog posts and Twitter feeds, and providing a bit of synthesis on what you've uncovered. And, as a corollary...

Great proposals don't require you to fully uncork your creative brain. You don't need to give the client speculative work to show that you get their business. There are other ways to be creative: for example, in how you render high-level strategy.

Great proposals always describe the client experience over the life of the project. When you describe schedules and deliverables in a proposal, consider crafting a narrative that explains in plain English what would happen from week to week through the life of your project. This is mission-critical when you're entering into a long-term commitment, especially when you need to corral stakeholders that are scattered all over the map. The proposal can serve as your stake in the ground regarding how all of that complexity can be managed. It doesn't have to speak to day-to-day activities on a calendar. Keep it just abstract enough that it can't be easily negotiated until the proposal is signed.

Great proposals can take the form of a conversation. A very strong proposal reflects the give and take of a discussion, where you state your overall hypothesis, consider different takes on said approach, and then go for the jugular with a well-supported position. Stating your assumptions in a proposal not only demonstrates an understanding of your client's needs -- it also forges critical connections that will help pave the way to a strong creative brief at launch.

Great proposals say just enough to make the sale. Overwrite the overall document, then edit it mercilessly. Don't repeat things or reiterate elements. Show your progression of thought whenever possible, but don't come off as sounding longwinded. You're not setting a good precent for clients who want you to cut straight to the result.

Great proposals don't give away your secret sauce for how you estimate the work. Be very mindful of what the client needs to see in order to perceive the value of your services. If you're completely transparent about how you estimate your projects, you're asking for prospective clients to start chipping away at the total bill. Plus, if you reveal your hourly rate, they could start comparison shopping. Talk about a bad negotiating position.

Great proposals clearly describe what isn't included. Clients really enjoy finding out when they're deep into a project that certain critical items aren't included in the bill of lading. Not.

Great proposals aren't a substitute for being nice to your prospective clients. When you go head to head with another designer at the same level of skill and expertise, the one that tells the best story in their proposal -- supported by the best justification of the overall cost -- often wins. But the designer that's really nice to their clients and fosters a strong relationship as human beings will keep the client relationship after the project is complete.

Great proposals need to be just good enough. "I wish I had more time to work on that proposal. It could be a little bit better." Hmm... this proposal isn't going on the side of a soda can, or supporting one million visitors a month on the Interweb. Be aware of your overall time investment in each proposal, as that time should be proportionate to the overall importance of the design work that will emerge from said document.

Great proposals make your clients want to dive in and get started. When you finish reading a really strong proposal, you are emotionally moved. Your clients say, "Wow, they really get me. They understand what I want, and they're ready to deliver it right away." If they aren't saying this, you didn't hit the mark. And if they choose not to hire you, ask for feedback on the document straightaway.

Great proposals come from rote practice and continual iteration. Crafting the killer proposal isn't as tricky as it sounds. Once you've written twelve or thirteen, things will start to gel.



Do you have any examples that you can share?

David Sherwin

While I'd love to share some of the proposals I've referenced here, they all contain confidential stuff. :)

I'll see about in the coming months putting together a rough proposal outline with fake content that can be shared. But as a note of caution, if I provide a frame for a proposal, it's only a starting point for your own needs. You should be evolving your own proposal style and structure based on the kinds of services you wish to offer. The same applies to documents like creative briefs, whose shapes vary depending on the types of problems you're seeking to solve.

The comments to this entry are closed.