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6 Seemingly Harmless Ways You're Sabotaging Your Proposals

60% of leading advertisers will review their agencies within the next 12 months, according to a study from Advertiser Perceptions. As if to prove the point, Procter & Gamble announced in January they will review all ad agency contracts in 2017.

Whether it's due to the demise of the agency-of-record, growing concerns over transparency issues, or the invasion of management consulting firms on ad agency turf, marketers are actively shopping for agencies like never before.

So what does that mean for agencies? You just might start seeing an increase in the number of RFPs landing in your inbox. Good for the upper-end of the sales pipeline, but you'll increase your chances of converting a prospect to a client if you treat your RFP responses like the strategic sales tools they're meant to be -- and that means avoiding these six hazardous pitfalls.

6 Seemingly Harmless Proposal Mistakes

1) You don't know enough to make informed choices.

The Fix: Ask the right questions.

Having an RFP from a new prospect show up unsolicited in your inbox can elicit a giddy response. It's a shiny object that leads you to believe your pipeline problems are over.

Hallelujah. You knew something would come along eventually. Instead of thoughtful consideration of the RFP's requirements and the client fit with your agency, you rally your team and dive right in.

This is a risky, time consuming approach to winning new business.

Instead, gain control from the start by asking the right questions. Why is the client conducting this review? Why now? Why us? Who will decide the winner? What's the budget and timing? Has this scope of work even been approved?

And don't just ask the questions -- know the right answers in advance to qualify this prospect as a worthwhile opportunity for your agency.

2) You take the RFP at face value.

The Fix: Interpret the RFP.

Clearly, you must read the RFP. In fact, you must read the RFP multiple times and throughout the proposal process to make sure your response stays focused on the client's needs, and doesn't go off on unnecessary tangents.

The hazard is taking the RFP at face value without interpreting important information that's hiding in plain sight.

For instance, most RFPs provide a list of people who will be involved in the review process at some level. Look at this list critically for things like who the decision-makers are versus who's in a supporting or supervising role.

How involved is senior leadership? Are some disciplines represented more than others? Are there any surprises, such as roles and responsibilities that aren’t typically associated with a marketing function (e.g., a big regional franchise operator in the case of a quick-serve restaurant chain)? All these considerations reveal internal politics and agendas, as well as valuable insights into the client's decision-making process.

3) You use your response to tell the prospect all about you.

The Fix: You grasp the issues that are important to the client and tailor your response to address them.

Sounds like such obvious advice, doesn't it? Yet I'm surprised at how infrequently agencies follow it.

Suppress your natural desire to tell the prospect all about you. It's hard, because many RFPs will give the impression that they want to know everything there is to know about your work process, capabilities, team bios, etc.

Instead, start the process by establishing key messages you need to communicate (probably no more than three) to win the business. If you've hedged your bets and avoided hazards one and two on this list, you're in a strong position to make those decisions.

Make sure everyone who is contributing to the response knows what those messages are. Be a ruthless editor and discard anything that distracts from presenting your best argument.

4) You "save" your best material for the presentation.

The Fix: You reinforce your messages through artful repetition.

We give clients way too much credit for remembering what we tell them. Here's a reality check: they may be reading (or, more accurately, skimming) a dozen or more responses, most of them badly written, few of them with any differentiating qualities.

If the story is good, telling it once is not enough. Humans love to be told the same good story over and over again. That might be why West Side Story was such a hit despite the fact that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet preceded it by almost 400 years, and Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe by almost 2,000.

5) You weave yourself into a cocoon of jargon and generalization.

The Fix: You tell a good story.

Ad agencies deliver value to their clients predominantly through intangible services like strategy, planning and creative development. It's difficult for agencies to describe those things in tangible ways. In their struggle, many fall prey to jargon and generalizations that end up telling the prospect nothing. This is why so many proposals sound the same.

Storytelling is a foolproof cure.

It makes the intangible tangible. It gives your prospective client, who may know almost nothing about you, something to relate to. It makes it easier for them to remember you -- and to repeat to others what they liked about you.

It's not difficult to incorporate some basic storytelling techniques into your RFP responses. When I do persuasive writing workshops with agencies, I often use the Pixar Pitch as an easy framework to gently but effectively encourage my clients to experiment with storytelling.

6) You break the wrong rules.

The Fix: Don't play fast-and-loose with stupid stuff.

Sometimes it's to your advantage to take a risk and break some rules. Usually these are "go big or go home" kinds of risks.

What are the wrong rules to break? The ones that will buy you nothing except the client’s annoyance. These include changing the sequence of questions because you feel it would "make your response so much better." Or putting your response in an unusual format to make a creative statement.

Think about how your prospective clients are going to interact with your response. The client probably has a reason for organizing the questions in the way they did -- like being able to compare answers apples to apples. You may not agree with their approach, but why put yourself at a disadvantage but messing around with their system?

Don't make responding to RFPs harder or riskier than it needs to be.

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