5 essential sections for a great agency proposal template
First things first: a proposal isn’t a pitch. A proposal is usually used as the first stage of a wider pitch process to filter down a field of agencies. I'm focusing here on the long form written proposal.
As an aside, alarm bells should be ringing if the prospect or client only wants a written proposal sending through with no opportunity for you to meet or at least ask questions. So I’ll assume you have requested and secured a meeting or some form of Q&A before you start creating your proposal. That way you have all the facts you need to answer the request and you’ve also started building a relationship.
'Winning is not everything, but the effort to win is.' Zig Ziglar
There'll be times when your proposal isn't written in a competitive context:
- you may be the incumbent and have a great client relationship and your client will come to you and ask you to propose new work based on changes to their business / communications requirements.
- you may have an eye on organic growth and will proactively approach them.
In both these scenarios, you’ll still need work hard to create a compelling proposal.
Proposals are, however, usually competitive. Requested when there is more than one agency to consider. Even more reason to make sure your proposal gives you an advantage and generates a positive outcome!
The proposal is dead, long live the proposal
There is a perennial discussion in agency world about the pros and cons of the pitch and RFP (Request For Proposal) new business model.
What you want is for the prospect to notice and engage directly with you based on your visible brand profile, reputation, expertise and effectiveness.
Without feeling the need to look further afield. That should shine through from all that you write or create to tell your story. That's a simplistic overview of the benefits of having a Content Marketing strategy of course. But this route should get you to briefing stage without having to undertake a 3, 5 or 10 way cage fight with other agencies first.
This new model of business acquisition is still evolving though. I’m in agreement with the mission of (for example) Win Without Pitching but the truth is that you are still going to be asked to complete RFPs and to attend pitches.
So if you have decided to go for it (having qualified the opportunity first!) you need to do all you can to make your response stand out from all the others.
So, what makes a great proposal?
There are five areas to focus on to deliver a great proposal:
- 1. The scorecard
- 2. Insight
- 3. Structure
- 4. Proposition
- 5. Presentation
Refer to any scoring criteria / scorecard provided by the client first. Assess all their criteria and ensure you give as much information as possible to get full marks in each area.
A scorecard should make it clear what particular sector (or technology or media etc.) experience the client has deemed as either essential /mandatory or just ‘desirable’. You should be finding that information out sooner rather than later and before you start to brief your various teams!
If you think there's a barrier to your involvement based on the above, have a conversation with the client team to clarify. Then decline, proceed or tailor your response (e.g by bringing in a specialist partner to cover any inhouse gaps you may have) as appropriate.
Focus on gaining insights into the client's stated issues as soon as possible:
- Has the RFP / brief given you a clear understanding of what business problems or opportunities you are being asked to address?
- Is this enough of a catalyst for you to generate effective insight into the problem and resultant solution/s?
If not, then now is the time to ask for some more information.
Then focus on gaining insights into the people who will be sweating those issues client-side:
- Have you got a good idea of the person or persons you’ll be creating the proposal for?
- Or indeed a worked-up buyer persona/s?
The contact who sent you the RFP isn’t necessarily the person/s who'll be reading and scoring your response. Get the right audience fixed in your mind and that will shape what you write. You'll then naturally flex the terminology and tone of voice you use.
Focus on particular aspects of your potential service / solution that will resonate most with them. There may be more than one decision maker and in different parts of the business (Marketing Director, Head of Content, Procurement or Finance Director etc) but being clear who they are and being focused on them will help.
Make sure you have a firm insight into both these areas before you start to shape the rest of the proposal.
You should look to break down a proposal as below, unless the client (within the RFP) has explicitly requested a specific content order.
- Introduction / Exec Summary
Agency Introduction (your agency value proposition detailed upfront. And you could also include a one page summary / infographic on your services, resources, testimonials and awards. Keep it all concise though.)
Scope of Work (your proposed services, based on initial discovery work, which you should spell out along with any assumptions. Detail how you will make a difference to the client business via the services / creative / project you are proposing).
- Initial creative work - if a mandatory part of the RFP.
- ROI calculations (if possible)
- Timings / Schedule
- T&Cs / Caveats
Next Steps (prompt the client if they haven’t explained what will happen next in the process - suggest a workshop to kick start the project, test any assumptions you have made etc)
- 1. Further ‘About Us’ details including an RFP mandatory information that has been requested.
- 2. Details of your initial discovery work, if applicable.
- 3. Relevant summary case studies that illustrate part of your proposals
The client selection team could be seeing a lot of proposals so make your submission easy to digest with a clear structure. This will include a contents page, defined sections, logical headings and branded headers and footers.
And you may have started with a great template within the agency. But these often morph as different people add sections, change layouts etc and there may well be a few (not so coherent) versions now. Declare an amnesty and make sure you have just one properly structured template in use. And you'll stop rogue formats in the future if you have a clear ‘editorial board’ for all new business opportunities (see later).
It's not about you.
You should look at putting much of the long hand mandatory / functional information about yourself to the back of the document. And focus up front on how you can help the client with their business.
Key Takeaways for a RFP
To expand on some of the areas mentioned in the structure above:
Follow the letter of the RFP and provide all the trading, legal, team and operational information the client has asked for. You may well lose points or be disqualified if you don’t.
Set up a checklist when you first get the RFP and nominate people in your team to be responsible for providing specific information. Make sure it’s all in there in the final proposal.
Once you have created the document write an executive summary, with a few proposals to read, you want yours to be as compelling and easy to remember as possible.
- 3. Describing your processes
It’s about the results you achieve for clients not how ‘unique’ your processes are. Many agency processes are the same for the good reason that they work and the client will have seen a lot - so don’t take up several pages explaining yours. Summarise them if possible in one easy to understand flow chart or infographic.
- 4. Discovery and due diligence
Show that you understand the brief and the inherent challenges or opportunities detailed within it. Detail the insights you have gained to date and how you arrived at them. This demonstrates you have already been 'putting the work in' to get great results for the client.
If you are not sure how to run a discovery processes then take a look at our guide :
It may sound obvious but don’t create the whole strategy before you have been appointed. It makes no sense for either party for you to have a finalised strategy without any collaborative client sessions.
You should be really clear what it is about working with you as a partner that will benefit the client. What's your agency value proposition? Your differentiator in a crowded market?
Has your proposition been clearly defined (not obscured by buzz words) in simple, compelling language? If you are a sector specialist be clear in explaining that and how it tangibly benefits clients. If you have built the agency around a co-creation model explain the cost to market benefits of working with you on that basis.
Give your proposition room to breathe within the document and detail any detailed substantiation of that (through short case studies and existing client quotes / testimonials) on separate pages.
If you haven’t yet created an agency value proposition here are a couple of great explanations:
How to create a useful value proposition
Art of creating a magnetic value proposition
First impressions really do count and a well-researched solution will lose credibility if it is badly explained, full of typos and uses dense language.
- Use the experts in your agency - designers, copywriters, copy proofers - to make a difference. Have them craft key sections and check everything off - quality is all.
- Word or Powerpoint doesn’t have to mean dull, one of your designers can look at callouts for key points etc.
Written presentation aside, try to present your proposals in person - unless it’s a strict sealed submission situation (e.g public sector).
- 7. Proposal technology platforms
And finally, a quick word on platforms that may help you produce great proposals. There are a number in the marketplace with a mix of functionality, some weighted more towards estimate quote creation and some that integrate into both CRM and billing platforms. The G2Crowd site has reviews from business users. One of those platforms, Quoteroller also has a useful blog related to selling, proposal creation and pitching.