It’s taken me years of outlining that perfect proposal, weeks of developing and relying on industry trends and algorithms to determine cost, and hours of endless comparison with competitive agencies to really understand what clients are looking for when requesting services.
What have I learned?
There is no perfect outline, you can't anticipate your client’s magic number, and recreating competitive proposals won't set you apart to your prospective client.
What should go into every single RFP is research. Hours of it, in fact.
Too often, proposals read like a sales pamphlet. No client wants to pick up your proposal and read 10 pages on your agency's history, industry awards, and other clients' successes. It reads like a spam email you would typically delete. If you’ve ever received one (or hundreds), you know what I’m talking about – clearly regurgitated content that was carefully combed to reflect this client’s name to “personalize” your horn-tooting introduction.
And it shows the client that your agency couldn’t engage with the client's brand enough for him to pay you hard-earned money to do just that.
I know what it’s taken my partner and I to build Owens Harkey Advertising, and you bet I’ve seen my share of salesman and bamboozlers trying to sell me services. I will never disrespect someone I plan on working with by assuming they’re just another paycheck. He also had the passion and foresight to make his company what it is today.
Keep this and these five things in mind when creating your next RFP.
1. Do your research on the client.
I see who the client's biggest competitors are and, on a personal level, if I use a competitor product, I ask why and how my loyalty could be swayed. I learn everything I can about the company's founder, how others perceive the brand, and if I really believe in what the brand sells or provides.
When “partnering” (because it is absolutely that, a partnership) with an agency, it’s important that your brand shepherd is an evangelist for what you do; if I feel a disconnect, I will disengage at this point. If I’m energized with ideas, I will begin my proposal with an opportunities analysis and a genuine narrative about where I see the brand heading.
2. Ditch the self-serving aspect.
Anything the client needs — or wants — to know about our agency's partners, how engaged we are in the industry, how cutting-edge our services are, and our list of name-drop clients is found in the appendix to reference at the client's leisure. Our agency is filled with talent, passion, motivation, and ideas. If our ideas won’t sell us as a valued partner, I can’t ensure the work we produce is something all of my employees can be proud of. Showing the client your attention is truly focused on his needs is paramount.
3. Learn what not to include.
If I don’t fully understand what the client is looking for, I ask. The last thing I want to do is wax poetic on an aspect my client has no interest in.
Some RFPs are definitely a little vague, but I see that as an invitation to engage with the client prior to submitting — the proposal process has become much too informal, so interaction is often viewed as refreshing. Even with highly technical government RFPs that detail very specific outlines, making sure your client gets the right information provides him insight on what working with you might be. After all, the biggest reason companies go out for RFP is because they’re starting to feel neglected. Show them you’re not afraid to call when something has you stumped.
4. Give the client your best ideas.
Have I had clients use our spec creative or catchy headlines without being named their agency of record? Too many times.
But our team will always deliver the absolute best ideas we come up with. Creating a proposal is such an exciting process for us to become inspired by brands and convey that on paper. Your best idea will resonate more than any other factor of an RFP. Even if you can’t compete on cost, you won’t be easily forgotten.
The best part? You’ll probably consider one of your proposals, won or lost, as a piece of top 10 creative (I do).
5. Keep your integrity.
This always comes first, and that often means you end up winning the very best clients. Cutting the legs off of your competitors by consistently offering bare-bone prices won’t keep you profitable, and in turn, it will likely be an unfair and stressful partnership. Over-promising and under-delivering will give you a reputation of having questionable dependability — and word of mouth is the most powerful marketing of all.
Be honest, promise all that you can possibly deliver, and practice mindfulness of the client’s existing brand and capabilities when submitting proposals.
These five things may not seem like the magic formula to winning every proposal you write — and it’s not.
You can’t win them all, and you definitely don’t want to.
You’re looking for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with a company you share similar goals and ideas with. The only reason I still give my blood, sweat, and tears is because I truly care about my clients and the part I play in our partnership.
RFPs can be the beginning of lifelong friendships. If you believe in their products, trust their advice, and learn from them, then you can grow together.