It is the bane of our existence.
We hate putting together proposals…and prospective clients rarely get what they want from them.
But, they’re free to the prospects and it’s how agencies do business so they’re a necessary evil.
Creating a proposal when you know very, very little—and you well know that two or three meetings with a prospect does not give you enough information to truly propose work that is beneficial to them—is the dumbest thing we can do.
What’s even worse is the RFP process, but that’s a different story for a different time.
What if there were a way to get paid for proposal writing?
And what if we changed the name from “proposal” to “strategic plan that is completely customized to you and your business needs”?
What a Standard Proposal Should Include
A couple of years ago, we decided to do this very thing.
For a few reasons, but namely because it’s impossible to know what you should know about a business at the very beginning.
Typically, it’s not until you’re three months in that you really understand what they’re trying to achieve and how you can help.
But, by then, the client has already paid you $9,000 or more so you have to stay the course.
What a ridiculous way to do business!
In many cases, the prospect either wasn’t fully upfront about their business challenges in the initial meetings, they didn’t fully understand the questions you asked, or a business plan doesn’t exist so everyone is throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.
You also may have a list of questions you ask, but don’t know the right questions to ask for some situations…until you get in there and start working with them.
It’s not fun and it makes for a terrible start to a relationship.
So why do we all do it? We’re all guilty of it.
We have a very standard proposal.
We update it, based on the prospect, but there is no creative thinking that goes into it.
We give away zero ideas for free.
We talk about our process and why we’re best suited as their partner.
Because we use the PESO model, we talk about what one can expect with an integrated program. But we never give ideas.
And the best part is it takes only an hour or two to create versus a week or more if you’re creating a strategic proposal full of creative ideas, based on information you were able to glean off the web and from a meeting or two.
How Being Paid for Proposal Writing Works
Once the proposal goes through our process, the prospect has a few options:
- DIY + bi-weekly coaching;
- Strategy session;
- Strategy session + coaching;
- Full integration.
If they’re doing DIY + coaching, they are assigned a coach who teaches them how to execute their own plan (and this is very, very needed).
They work weekly with someone here, but we are not responsible for planning or execution…just teaching.
Anything above that requires a strategy session, which is a two-day, in-person session where we dig really deep into the business.
We are paid for this and it’s where the client gets our creative ideas.
This is required for any new client because it allows us to get smart about their business really quickly, it tells us where there are holes, it helps us learn where their team has strengths and weaknesses, and—most importantly—it allows us to figure out how what we do will translate to real business results for them.
These are all things you never learn in a new business meeting, even if you ask.
It also allows us to skip three months of learning through weekly meetings and stumbling through material development.
By the time the first month is finished, we are already seen as partners and we feel as such.
Paid Proposals Create Far More Ownership
Here is what else is does: Because the client is essentially paying for the proposal, they’re far more engaged.
All of the executives show up for the two-day meeting.
They answer any and all questions.
They give us access to financial information, data, and even cultural or morale issues.
And—this is the most important thing to me—they begin to build trust among my team, which doesn’t require me to be the main point of contact.
That whole wanting to work with me because my name is on the door goes away because they just spent two full days with other members of my team and see how smart they are and what value they bring.
And, if they prefer to save a little money and not have me in the meeting, I don’t attend and send members of my team instead.
It’s pretty great!
We get paid for our creative and strategic thinking. My team quickly become the experts. And I can sit around and eat bon bons and watch daytime television.
Benefits to Being Paid to Write a PR Proposal
In all seriousness, there are many additional benefits to being paid to write a proposal:
- Avoid the tire kickers. How many of you have gone to new business meetings where you have a great conversation, you throw out some amazing ideas, and you think you have it nailed down…only to find out they either don’t have the budget, aren’t ready to hire help, or are just plain old thieves of ideas? I wish I could see your hands raised right now because I’m willing to bet it’s most of you. Back in the day, when Marshall Field’s became Macy’s, they decided they needed a Chicago firm to help message why a city tradition going away was going to be okay. We spent days working on a proposal. We flew to New York to present it. We won the business. And then they went silent. No one returned a phone call or email. A few weeks later, I was reading the Sun-Times and discovered they had launched our program…without us. Had we charged for all of that, it would have been okay that they executed without us because they would have owned the plan. But do you know how difficult it is to get someone to pay for your ideas after the fact?
- De-commoditize our industry. We’re not a commodity. We don’t sell widgets. If a prospect wants to pay less than you’ve proposed, there are two ways to do that: 1) Reduce your hourly rate, which isn’t recommended because we all need to make money; or 2) Reduce the scope of work. But, in the proposal writing phase, you have no real idea if reducing owned media efforts is going to work or if you need to increase them in order to get the earned media the client expects. A lawyer will give free advice only in a one-time, 15 minute call. An interior designer will meet with you in your home to see what you want, but you pay for them to draft a plan. Same goes for architects, accountants, and every other service business. You would never go into a restaurant and tell the chef you’ll be happy to pay after you digest the meal and you don’t have heartburn. Yet we allow ourselves to be treated that way.
- Create a strategic and customized plan. We’ve already talked a bit about this, but it does allow you to create something that is completely customized to the client. Sure, there may be things you do for every client, but the ideas are theirs. We had a strategy session in Oklahoma City a few weeks ago and the big idea that came out of that meeting never would have occurred to us in the proposal phase. We just didn’t have enough information, nor did we know enough about their team structure and who was doing what. Once we learned all of that, about four hours into the first day, we knew what needed to be done to capitalize on their significant point-of-differentiation.
- Date before you get married. The best part about our two-day strategic session is we get to date the client before we marry them…and vice versa. It’s very, very rare that the client doesn’t hire us to execute after the plan is developed and presented, but there is the opportunity for you to say, after 30 days, wait a second…this isn’t right for either of us. You deliver your strategic and customized plan and send them on their merry way.
So there you have it. It is possible to be paid to write proposals and I can’t wait to hear some of your success stories from having tried it!