I have to wear many hats being a Creative Director of a digital agency. One of my main tasks is helping the company win new business, usually by pitching for projects and creating proposals.
Anyone who does this regularly knows just how bloody hard the process can be, especially when you’re up against five decent agencies who all want to win just as much as you do.
They’ll also know how frustrating it is when you lose a project and receive no feedback.
Notice how I didn’t say ‘good’, ‘decent’ or ‘positive’ feedback – I mean any feedback at all. Some of you will be thinking “surely this doesn’t happen?”. But it does, all too frequently, even when it has been specifically asked for.
Before I launch into full-on rant mode about why it’s so frustrating, let me share a behind-the-scenes look at the proposal making process to give you a better idea of how much effort it takes. I’ll try and keep this is as short as possible.
The proposal creating process
Receive a brief in some form or another.
Most of the time, briefs for digital projects are good and detailed, but we do receive some shockers, (here’s a blog with hints and tips for creating better briefs). Usually, we’ll receive a brief that has a tight deadline with little or no notice. This forces us to reschedule our diaries frantically.
Read, analyse, understand, ask questions.
This might take 30 minutes, a whole day or more – it really depends on the complexity of the project and how detailed the brief is. This part of the process is crucial. If we don’t ask the right questions or analyse the brief thoroughly, we might completely miss something that causes the project to fail.
Call or meeting to discuss further.
We organise a call or meeting to discuss the brief so we can ask additional questions that may not have been answered. Again, this might be a 30-minute call, but most of the time it will be a full day out of the office.
Is this project a good fit for us now we have all the information we need. Can we make a difference? Do we have sector experience? Is it worth the time we’ll be investing?
Research, plan and brainstorm.
We write up our notes from the meeting and gather our thoughts. This is the exciting part – we use all our years of knowledge, business expertise and creativity to identify the business’s main challenges and priorities (if they aren’t known already). Then, we establish how we can make the most valuable, positive difference to their business.
Ideas can’t be forced, so this part of the process usually takes a week or so.
Creating the proposal
This is the most difficult part, as it involves bringing everything together in one readable document.
When writing a proposal the following happens:
- We interpret our ideas and put them onto paper
- More ideas emerge and we decide whether to include them or not
- We double check we’ve answered everything from the brief
- We make sure it’ll inspire, not bore the hell out of, the reader
- Check spelling and grammar
- Work out costs and milestones.
- We review, submit it and then pray
Again, writing a proposal can take a day if the project is fairly simple, but most of the time it will take three or more days for complex systems or websites.
Hopefully, this clearly shows the time and effort it takes to create amazing proposals. But let’s really hammer this home and look at it from a different perspective…
Imagine for a moment…
Your partner suddenly drops the bombshell that they have invited 20 work colleagues around for dinner this Saturday, and they want you to cook.
You’re a decent person (plus it’d score you major brownie points), so you agree to the challenge.
Immediately, you start preparing. You gather everyone’s emails and message them to see if they have any special dietary requirements. There are five vegans in the group, plus Barry from accounts is allergic to mushrooms.
After hours of researching ‘how to cook for vegans’, you finally make a decision on what to cook and head down to the supermarket to buy ingredients.
You then spend many more hours trying to find a certain spice that is key to the success of this meal. It’s not in stock, so you head to specialist shop hoping they’ll have it… they do, hoorah!
Saturday arrives – you get up at the crack of dawn to start cooking for tonight’s meal. You slave away all day, you pour your heart and soul into it.
People arrive on time. Sure, it’s been a struggle, but you’re ready and buzzing – you feel like you’ve cooked something truly amazing and you’re ready to dish up.
Everyone eats and then without a single word or compliment, they all (including your partner), get up from the table and leave your house.
You’re sat there alone, dazed and confused. You start asking yourself questions:
I’ve spent a lot of time on this meal, why did they not say anything?
What didn’t they like about it?
How could I have done better?
Where have they gone?
These are the exact same questions agencies ask when they don’t receive feedback on proposals/pitches that they’ve spent a long time lovingly creating.
Be a little bit meaner
I believe most humans are generally nice, decent folk, and that’s one of the main reasons why some decision makers don’t give honest, constructive feedback. They don’t want to be seen as mean, so avoid saying anything at all.
It’s an understandable response, but it’s worth remembering that we work in a sector where we’re used to honest feedback. People shouldn’t be scared of hurting our feelings.
No feedback is unconstructive for an agency that spends a lot of time and effort creating a proposal or pitch. Not only do they have the disappointment of losing, but they also lack the information they need to improve. Ultimately, feedback helps an agency have a better chance of winning next time.
What does constructive feedback sound like?
It’s preferable to receive feedback via the phone, but it’s understandable why some decision makers choose email instead. The feedback should be as constructive as possible, including who won, why they won and how the losing agency could improve.
Here’s an example of good constructive feedback. You can use this as a guide if you wish:
Thank you for submitting your proposal for the Acme Digital Project.
Unfortunately, we won’t be working with you this time. We have chosen to work with ABC Agency as we feel they have the most experience within our sector – their costs were not the lowest, but lower than your submission.
We really liked your ideas for improving our website’s UX, especially for improving the booking experience.
However, we didn’t think you concentrated enough on improving the events section which we believe is highly important to the success of our business. Maybe, this wasn’t discussed enough in our first brief meeting?
We really liked you as a company and thought that your communication was excellent. It would have been nice if you brought biscuits to the meeting* (but that’s only a minor thing you could’ve done better).
From everyone at Acme, we wish you all the best for the future and hope we can maybe work with you on another project one day.
All the best
As you can see, the message doesn’t need to be long, it just needs to be constructive.
*I used the biscuits feedback for comedy value, please don’t use that bit as a guide.
I hope this post is useful for any decision makers out there, please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.
If you’re a proposal writer, I’d also love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.