A Proposal For Fewer Proposals

proposalPlease consider this post written on bended knee. I’m asking you to consider a proposal. I’m not asking for a lifetime commitment, just a change in a business practice that no longer makes sense. This is a proposal to reduce business proposals.

For decades, PR firms were judged on how well they could sling together standard language, over-reaching promises and examples of past work, along with a few lines at the beginning customized for a potential client based on one meeting and, at the end, the all-important fee request (based usually on the highest monthly number the firm thought it could get away with). The proposal would be considered, shared among decision-makers, and then weighed against other firms competing for business. The winning firm would then have to live up to the “best case” scenarios laid out in the proposal and would bill that number from proposal’s end every month, until they were fired.

While business realities have evolved, the PR agency proposal often has not. It’s still a time-consuming exercise in guess work and hypothetical examples. Rarely, if ever, can it delve into what a real relationship would actually be like. Most often, it gives the potential client a false sense of security that it did its “homework” in looking for a firm. Quite often, the proposal goes absolutely nowhere other than the unbillable section of the firm’s time report.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to get thoughts on paper to allow for a process of prioritization and evaluation. In those cases, both the potential client and the firm should agree on what would actually be helpful to be presented and what doesn’t cross the line into free work. Often, a simple letter or memo can lay it all out. If a longer proposal is necessary, there should be shared expectations about what it should contain.

Most often, we prefer to work with potential clients to explore opportunities on level ground. They come to us based on a referral from someone familiar with our work. We try to get to know each other to see if we share common values. We try, in initial conversation, to identify priority areas – the “need to haves” that would be addressed first in an engagement. We talk about a scope of work that could serve as a starting point, and then, and only then, fees that would correspond to the time it would take to accomplish the initial, focused objectives. This two-way dialogue tends to result in the best client relationships we enjoy.

We have frequently written about how RFPs are the worst ways to hire a firm. But even without those Really Flawed Processes, mistakes can be made, time wasted and empty promises made by requiring written proposals that win style points but little else. If you’re shopping for a firm, consider cutting to the case and leaving out the fluff.