As part of my work at We Make Media, I regularly have to prepare proposals and deliver pitches to potential clients. A lot of the time projects come about through informal meetings and conversations with clients, gaining an understanding of what they want to achieve and preparing a project proposal which meets (and often exceeds) their needs.
Other times though, we have to go through a more formal pitching process, competing for a contract with other agencies. Last week I had to attend a pitch interview and deliver a presentation for our proposal, and since I hadn’t done one for a while, I was reminded of just how much we have to put into these things.
I’ve worked for a fair few big agencies, and I’ve had plenty of experience working with all sorts of clients: my speciality for a while was as a consultant team lead, acting as a liaison between demanding clients and (slightly less demanding) creative teams. I’ve also spent a lot of time preparing documentation and assets for pitches.
But it was only when I founded an agency of my own that I realised just how much effort we were going to need to put in, in order to secure a healthy roster of clients. It’s one of the biggest differences between working as a freelancer and taking on the responsibilities of running an agency. The projects get bigger, the paperwork becomes more demanding, and you really have to raise your game.
Sadly, we didn’t secure last week’s pitch. Although we received some very positive comments about the interview, the presentation and our creative ideas, our technical solution just wasn’t quite what they were looking for. That’s just the way it goes sometimes: no matter how good you are, and no matter how much effort you put in, you’re just not quite the right fit for that particular client at that particular time.
It’s always disappointing to loose out – it’s less the rejection, more the fact that your creative ideas and enthusiasm for the project have hit a dead-end. But it gave me an opportunity to reflect on how we go about the process of pitching, and how we can do better next time. So I’m going to share my thoughts on the process and try to demystify a few of the more daunting aspects.
Usually, the process starts with a Request For Proposal from the potential client. This will be a document outlining the requirements of a project, and at the bare minimum will include:
- An outline of the brief
- A timetable of the pitch process
- A timetable of important project milestones
- What they expect in your proposal
It may also include:
- Background information about the client
- History of the project
- Objectives and aims of the project
- Technical requirements
- The available budget
- Who will be involved in the project
- A summary of available assets
Make sure it’s the real deal
It’s a sad fact of life that a fair number of RFPs are sent out by organisations going through the motions: fulfilling their tender obligations despite the fact that the work has already been allocated. It can be frustrating when this happens, particularly because the cumulative time it wastes for everyone involved is not insubstantial: if six agencies are invited to submit a proposal, and each has one person spending just a day preparing a response, that’s six days of everybody’s time wasted.
It’s just a fact of life though, and aside from encouraging better ethics, the best you can do is try to keep an eye out for the warning signs:
- If the brief is very short, it could be that they don’t see the need to explain a project which has already been green-lit.
- If there’s evidence of copy-pasting from another RFP, it shows a worrying lack of care and attention to detail.
- If there is a heavy emphasis on telling you what the creative solution should be, rather than inviting your ideas and suggestions, then it could be a sign that the project has already been well defined by somebody else.
- If the deadline for submitting the proposal is almost imminent, then it could indicate that the pitch process is being rushed, or that you’ve been invited to submit just to make up numbers.
I’m not suggesting that these are hard and fast rules for detecting a flawed pitch process, and you certainly shouldn’t just turn down an invitation to submit your proposal based on any or all of these points. But I’d suggest that it’s always worth opening a conversation with your prospective client to get the information you need, and to get a feel for their expectations: if they’re open to questions and show an enthusiasm to engage with you, then it’s a good indicator of their authenticity; if they’re cagey or aren’t able to answer your questions, or are just too keen to refer you back to the RFP, then you might want to consider whether it’s worth putting in the effort for them. After all, if they’re not communicative with you at this early stage, are they really going to be the type of client you want on your books?
Resist the temptation to submit design ideas too early
An RFD will often include a request for you to submit design ideas, or to show an example of what your creative solution might look like. We always resist showing any visual designs or mockups at the written proposal stage. It’s time-consuming, and I think it’s unreasonable to commit so much creative resource at such a tentative part of the relationship with the client.
More importantly though, at this gestation phase of a project, there is no way that our creative ideas can be fully informed. The client should be recruiting an agency to come up with new, original, innovative ideas: creating those ideas is all part of the project and that can only happen once you’ve established a working relationship.
If we get selected for interview, then sometimes I’ll spend a little time producing some mockups – but only if it’s going to help explain an idea, not just to wow the client. Often though, it’s much better to show existing examples to illustrate your concepts – either from your own portfolio, or work which has inspired or informed your ideas – that way you can show that your concepts aren’t just pie-in-the-sky meanderings: your ideas can be visualised in a real-world application.
Include an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement)
We always put a confidentiality statement in every proposal document we send out. It provides a little bit of security and peace of mind that our ideas aren’t going to be hijacked if another agency gets appointed. It’s just a polite reminder to potential clients that we take ownership of our intellectual property seriously and that our proposal to them isn’t free for open discussion with third parties.
If, further down the line, you do suspect that someone has ripped off your work, you’re in a much better position to approach them about it if you’ve explicitly stated the terms under which you’ve provided documents to them. Call it over-cautious if you like, but I always think it’s best to err on the side of caution when sharing your creative ideas: as a creative agency, our ideas are our life blood.
Chances are that if your written proposal gets shortlisted, you’ll be invited to interview to present your ideas in more detail, and to answer a ton of questions. And be in no doubt, there will be a lot of questions. It won’t just be one person firing them at you either, it’s likely to be a panel of different staff each of whom will be wanting to quiz you on different aspects of the proposal. It can be a pretty daunting process, so you need to be really, really well prepared. The fact that these meetings are called “interviews” is no coincidence: they can feel like a job interview, but with far more intense scrutiny, and far more of an emphasis on justifying yourself.
If you’re flying solo and attending the interview on your own, you’ll need to be clued up on every aspect of the project, including:
- The creative approach
- The technical approach
- The people who will be involved in the project
- How the project will be managed
- The budget and any ongoing costs
And this is aside from having an impressive and well-rehearsed presentation to deliver! You need to be sure you have everything clear in your head before you go in – if you’re well prepared, you’ll be more confident, more relaxed and you’ll be able to present and field questions without having to worry too much about the words coming out of your mouth.
Technical details are hard to explain
Having reflected on recent pitches, this is the one area where I’ve realised that I need improve my approach.
I’m pretty confident that the technology, tools and methodologies we use to develop our online projects are just bloody amazing. We’re really proud of the fact that we’re able to develop projects which make it stupidly easy for clients to manage their online presence, and to adapt to their needs over time. We use agile development frameworks which provide much more flexibility and advanced functionality than a standard CMS (Content Management System).
Now, I can talk at length about the technical ins-and-outs of the tools we use, the software we write and the interfaces we design until pretty much everyone else in the room is bored to tears. But ask me to summarise the approach and explain how it works in layman’s terms, and I tend to come unstuck. Even providing a demonstration of what I’m talking about does more harm than good, as there are so many caveats and if’s and maybe’s involved. A lot of it is theory and design patterns, which aren’t very client-friendly topics of discussion.
If you can demonstrate the technology or software you’re proposing, then do. And where you can, I think it’s worth showing it in the context of what you’re talking about: if people can see something actually functioning, then they can much more easily visualise how it will work for them.
I tend to take our technology for granted, and don’t appreciate how unfamiliar and alien it can seem to people who aren’t so technically savvy. I need to do a better job of evangelising how damned clever it is.
Don’t be tempted to quote too low
Costing and scheduling a project is a whole article in itself, but I will offer up this little bit of advice.
If an RFP gives a guide to the budget which is available, and you think it’s way too low for the amount of work involved, then think twice before putting in a low quote just for the sake of securing the work. You’ll likely come to regret it further down the line. Clients can often put unreasonable demands in their brief – they’re obviously looking to get good value-for-money, so they’re hardly going to hold back on the spec. But an unrealistic proposal is eve more dangerous than an unrealistic brief. Aside from the fact that it can make you look desperate for work, if a schedule of work looks unrealistic when you’re in the planning stages, it will become a very sobering reality when it comes to actually delivering what you promised.
If you think the scope of a project is unreasonable within a proposed budget, then say so in your initial proposal, explaining your rationale. Providing suggestions for cost-saving solutions can be a virtue which makes you come across as pragmatic and reliable.
And if the scope of work seems ridiculous for the budget being proposed, then don’t be afraid to just walk away.
One thing I hear and read more and more often these days is that a client is looking to “establish a relationship”. It’s very rare these days that we finish working on a project once it launches. We usually embark upon a project with the intention of maintaining and evolving it over time – it just makes good business sense for us and the client. It’s also a good thing creatively, because it means we can continually review, improve and refine elements of a project once it’s in the wild.
So that’s something to bear in mind when you’re pitching your ideas. Yes, you’re being asked to deliver on the specifics of the client brief for this particular project, but your relationship may continue for months or years into the ongoing life of the project. This is going to be in the back of the client’s mind, and so you need to think about ways you can give them confidence that you’re future relationship is going to be based on reliability and value-for-money.
These are just my thoughts and very general advice – it’s all very subjective. I don’t expect everyone to agree with the points I’ve written – I see that as a good thing: everybody’s approach should be different; tailored to the way that you approach your work. I think that’s the trick to a good pitch really: find what works for you.
I would love to have feedback on the subjects raised here, and feel free to contribute any of your own suggestions on things I’ve missed out.