How to Write a Winning Project Proposal

In the creative, genius-competitive, “our-ideas-are-more-trendy-than-yours” marketing agency world, the ability to write a coherent, unique, and polished project proposal can mean the life or death of your agency. Project proposals are usually requested when clients are deciding between a few different agencies, which gives them a highly competitive nature. Say the wrong thing, and you’re out of work.

Thus, the natural inclination of most proposal writers is to show off their creative agency’s quirks with section headers like “our process” and “why our agency is the right choice”.  

This sort of competitive “we are way more avant-garde than you” attitude is palpable in agency branding. Who can have the sleekest, most modern, most unexpected brand design? Although the answer to this question is important (think: cobbler’s barefoot children), it doesn’t say anything about the ability of an agency to deliver quality products to the client.

The design of your office that took months to produce, your search-engine-optimized website, and your triangle business cards may have hooked a client in during the “window-shopping” phase of research, but now that it’s time to write the proposal, it’s not about your agency’s “coolness” anymore. It’s about showing the client you understand their problems, goals, are passionate about helping them. It’s about results.

In previous articles we’ve outlined how to present your creative agency when it comes to invoices and deadlines:

Today we examine: how to write a proposal. And, it’s not as simple as it seems. If you truly want to write a stellar project proposal, you need to think beyond the boring tropes of traditional proposal strategy.

Client-centered project proposals are key

Before we breakdown the nitty gritty of how to write a project proposal, let’s go over the two main attractions.

  1. A project proposal must show how well you know your client’s needs.
  2. A project proposal must prove a high ROI for the client.

Kim Mickelsen, CEO of Bozell Integrated Marketing Services, talks about the first stages of the project planning process in an interview last year. The first step, she says, is to “immerse” yourself into the situation of the client, to become “deeply entrenched” in their history.

Find out the answers to questions like: What sort of branding strategies does the client currently use? What is the history of the company? What problems are they looking to solve with your services? Without knowing the history of the client, you are unable to “reframe” their brand for heightened success.

This “immersion” process begins long before a contract is signed. To accurately propose a project, you have to know the ins and outs of the what the project will be. That is why project planning is so important

Let’s say a scientist discovers a new medication that helps with concentration. The scientist may be proud of his work and trust the research of his product, but he can’t blindly promise the same results to everyone. Medical history, surgeries, and other diagnoses alter the effectiveness of his medication.

Your creative agency may work hard and have an impressive resume of accomplishments, but every client is different. How you apply the unique abilities of your people to a certain project is what makes a good creative agency a great one.  

Proving ROI is contingent upon this. When a client reads a proposal, she is looking for the solution to her problems. Focus on your client’s problems today, and not what you have done in the past. Without knowing her business well, you can’t concisely propose the expected ROI and intended outcomes of the project. An effort to do so without such research wastes times and reflects poorly on your agency’s work ethic.

When to write a proposal

A proposal reveals very private information about your creative agency. For example, you may have rates listed on your website for various types of projects. In reality, the scopes of projects are so different that those rates are just ballpark estimates. The proposal breaks down projects step by step and offers prices more accurately.

As fair as your prices are, this is not meant to be public information. As your agency grows and gains more competitors, your rates may also change. So may your creative processes. Keeping this information limited to only serious takers allows future flexibility.

So, when an average Jane knocks on your door asking for a proposal, don’t waste your time. Save energy by offering proposals only when:

  • You’ve had several conversations with the client about possible work.
  • You know the history of the client’s business well enough to feel comfortable working on the project.
  • You feel that the client is ready to take an offer from you seriously.
  • Or, the client is a “big name” and working with them will boost your resume.

Successful creative projects are collaborations between client and creative. Writing a project proposal is about showing you care enough to have a successful collaboration. Your agency doesn’t have the resources to genuinely care for everyone seeking out creative work. Be intentional.

Sections of your project proposal

Use this project proposal outline to write a proposal that is client-centered and concise (adapted from smartinsights.com):

  1. The client’s needs. Like we talked about earlier, this is where you prove that you actually listened to their conversations. Dull platitudes like “we’ll help your business grow” are not going to impress here. A sentence like “The client has shown great success in web marketing strategies, but would like to pursue local campaigns to narrow searches” is more profound.Talk about the history of your client’s business and highlight existing strong and weak spots in their marketing strategy. Then, write down exactly what sort of project the client is asking from you.
  2. Your interpretation of the client’s needs. Sometimes also referred to as “discovery work.” As Mickelsen talked about in her interview, the second step of the project planning process is to “reframe.”Writing a proposal is half jargon half therapy process. As with all problems in the world, an outside opinion can bring insight to the situation. Sometimes, after analyzing the client’s self-diagnosis, your agency may agree that a completely different strategy will help them.Use this section to set goals for the project. Do you believe the proposed project will boost their sales? Let them know how.
  3. The proposed project plan. This is the meat of the proposal. It contains several subsections.
    1. Introduction to your company. A place for a short summary of what teams will work on the proposed project, with some examples of their past successes. Keep the self-aggrandizing to a minimum. Simplicity and conciseness will help you stand out among competitors.
    2. The step-by-step process. You’ve laid out the goals, now put them to action. First, we will have x amount of meetings with these people from the client’s company. Then, we this team will collaborate and execute this plan … and so on, ending with a summary of the intended outcome. If you win the project, the process will likely change. Your goal should be to show your client the process — not worry about unforeseen obstacles. 
    3. ROI calculation, if possible. Perhaps your creative agencies uses a product like Bric for time tracking and project planning. In that case, you may have useful data from past projects that could give your client an accurate ROI calculation.
    4. Schedules. When will the project get done? Create goals for your project teams by setting several dates for different phases of the project.
    5. Cost. Use common sense. Be fair and upfront. In the competitive creative agency world, overcharging will just cost you referrals.

The lines between pitch, proposal, and contract are often blurred. The proposal outlined above is meant to come after your creative agency pitched their business services to the client, and before a contract is written and signed. It is not meant as legal document, but instead to prove that successful collaboration is possible.

Sometimes a client may ask you for a more formal proposal, called an RFP (request for proposal). This is a legal document that requires certain information about your payment process. An RFP may include the sections above, but also includes legal information about payment terms, delivery, and schedules.

Designing the proposal and finding templates

The proposal, unlike the invoice, is not a space to splash your brand everywhere.

Remember the “client-centered” mantra for project proposals. You may even consider including both your brand and the client’s brand on the top of the proposal as a symbol of the beautiful collaboration that will occur if they choose to hire you.

In any case, less is more. They can view individual employee’s portfolios to see works of art. You want your proposal to say “hey, we take you seriously” not “hey, we’re as colorful as clowns.”

Type and color need to adhere to your brand in a minimalistic way. A thousands different font sizes are distracting. Aim for more modern and zen style. William Morris said utility is just as important as beauty. Be like him.

There are a lot of very unfortunate proposal design templates on the internet, many of which are tacky and off taste. Avoid these templates. You are a creative agency, after all. You should be able to design it yourself.

On the flip-side, there are some proposal tools that may actually be useful to you, like Quoteroller. Quoteroller syncs e-mail conversations, sales quotes, contracts, and past proposals into one software so you don’t have to seek them out. Simple templates that sync with spreadsheets allow you to focus on client-relevant information without plugging in smaller details.

Expedience Software is a proposal software that is slightly simpler than Quoteroller. Expedience is 100% integrated into Microsoft Word, so you don’t have to run any outside softwares on your computer. It automates certain sections of your proposal, and also brings in proposal information to an accessible toolbar so you don’t have to search your computer for information.

Although intended for larger businesses, infoRouter stands out in the proposal software market for its collaboration function in writing the proposal. infoRouter allows several users to access the document at the same time, and also has tools for automating and indexing information.

Importance of mastering a proposal template for yourself

Whether you choose to use one of these softwares or not, you must decide on your project proposal style and stick with it. The content of the proposal is about the client’s needs and the client’s ROI, but the writing the proposal is about your agency’s needs and ROI.

Time spent talking to clients and writing proposals may end in $0 financial gain. The client may choose another agency. Nail down your proposal writing process to win work, and stop wasting your time and money on losing bids.

Smooth out the creases of your project proposals so you can give 100% of your attention to the main attraction: the potential client.