11 Tips for Writing a Killer Proposal

Digital Media
March 9, 2015

Between Christmas and New Year, colleagues and I had the pleasure of combing through 33 responses to a request for proposal we posted through the OJEU (that’s a European procurement framework, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure…)

I’m not being sarcastic: over the course of that week, we saw some incredible proposals and some really interesting ideas from some of Europe’s top digital agencies. But there were some that really stood out. What did they all have in common?

1. Proposal first, creds second

Let’s face it; we’re clients, we like hearing about ourselves. We want to hear your take on our problems: convince us you’re the right folk for the job, then prove it with your creds. Wading through five pages of creds before you’ve even seen an idea is a bit of a turn off.

2. Structure your response around evaluation criteria

Make it easy for us. Don’t make us hunt around. If we’ve stated criteria we’re measuring against, why not structure your proposal around those criteria?

3. Show you’re excited about the brief

We want to work with people who are genuinely passionate about the brief, itching to work with us, and hungry for the opportunity. You can’t fake enthusiasm, but if you want to work with us, explain why!

4. Reframe the brief

We saw a few versions of ‘There’s no point in reiterating the brief’ in the 33 proposals we read. Yes, actually, there is a point in doing that, because it shows us you’ve got under the skin of the brief. We want to see how you’ve unpacked the problem, how you’ve challenged the brief, and re-articulated it. It shows us the quality of your thinking and your confidence in getting to the heart of the issue.

5. Explain YOUR process

There are a few tried and tested models for the design process and proven methodologies for developing and delivering digital products and services: Corey Stern’s CUBI model, Damien Newman’s Squiggle, the Design Council’s Double Diamond (and all kinds of permutations of phases brought to you by the letter D) – they all made an appearance in our 33 proposals. But if you’re going to use a tried and tested process or framework, call it out – don’t imply this is your own approach.

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, Central Office of Design
The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, Central Office of Design

And whatever process you’re using, show how you’re flexing that around our challenges. Don’t give us a generic process – tell us what you will do, in what order, and why it’s the right approach for us and our challenge.

6. Don’t jump on a solution

So you’ve understood the problem, but try to avoid jumping on a solution – even caveating it with ‘this is just an indication of the thinking we’d do’ doesn’t disguise pre-supposing you know the answer. We want to you to unpack the problem and explain how you’re going to go about solving it – not just dive straight into implementing the solution you’ve proposed.

7. Avoid bad cut and paste

So the likelihood is our challenges aren’t specific to us alone. We know you’ve done some amazing work for clients like us. But don’t just include a cut and paste of the case studies we could easily check out on your website: by all means include them, but tell us what they achieved – give us some meaty stats and evidence – and explain why they’re relevant to us.

8. Add some value

I know, I can’t bear the phrase either. But the best proposals we saw were from agencies who showed us they don’t just make nice websites. They demonstrated how they’ve helped others drive genuine business value from the digital solutions they develop, and not just financial value, but happier, more productive staff, or more efficient business processes, for example. Explain where you think the value lies, and where – and how – you might be able to unlock it.

9. Get the right team for the job

We want to understand who from the team will be working on our project – who are they, what role will they have on the project. Most importantly, we’ll be looking at the proportion of staff you’ll be allocating to your project – there will be warning bells if it’s more than half your team, for example. We’re looking for a team that will deliver – one that’s not too top heavy, but with just the right amount of senior involvement.

10. Tell us what you expect from us

We need to make sure we’re ready for you. So tell us what you’re expecting of our in-house team. Explain how you will work to ensure we are able to manage our business as usual alongside a fast-paced project with you. And, better still, tell us how you’ll help us embed skills and gather enough internal momentum to get the project underway and the organisation behind the project.

11. Proofread, proofread, proofread

We were mean. We had set – for reasons I won’t go into here – a horrible deadline just after Christmas. Even if you’re suffering from post-office-Christmas-party hangovers or in an almighty rush, do a spellcheck, learn the difference between its and it’s and, for goodness sake, spell your company name right.

And if you’re wondering which of the 33 got the website refresh gig, more on that soon…

18 comments so far, view or add yours


Excellent article. As a member of a team responsible for presenting ideas and pitching to potential clients, its refreshing to see the view from the other side. It’s easy to fall into a trap of assuming you know what the people you are presenting to are thinking – but this is always dangerous ground. Making the efforts above for every pitch and presentation, regardless of client or project, will always help make sure you are maintaining quality. Great post Kati, look forward to finding out who the lucky winner is!

Thanks Ollie – glad it resonates agency side!

This is great… though it makes me a little sad that agencies submit proposals to you which don’t cover these elements. Naughty agencies

This is so good Kati! We spend a lot of time and energy putting together proposals, but very rarely get feedback or insight that’s as clear and useful as this. Thanks for bothering!

Thanks so much for writing this (particularly no.6). The whole pitch / proposal writing process seems a bit broken (speaking from an agency perspective) so feedback like this really help to move things forward.

I would love to collaborate with like minded folk on trying to fix the madness, sharing good practice on writing good briefs and proposals feels like a great first step.

Thanks for the feedback folks – much appreciated. I know what you mean @James – as a government funded body we have to follow strict procurement guidelines. There’s always room for improvement. Hopefully more of a genuine two way conversation about what works and doesn’t from both client and agency perspectives is a start. Over to you to blog on ‘how write a decent brief’…

Sitting here saying “yes, yes, YES!” because you’ve validated all those tactics that we KNOW work but often don’t manifest for various reasons including short fuses, uninspired or downright obstructive SMEs, “corporate” policy, and simply battle fatigue. Thanks to you, the fire is back in the belly at least for today. Best to you!

That’s a really interesting post @Sidney. We’re obliged to stick by government procurement guidelines, so I couldn’t see us taking such an approach. How do you feel about the TED process from an agency point of view?

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, very interesting to hear and read how they landed. In non Govt circles I think no proposal beats just meeting people and talking through the project. I personally think a studio should adapt their process to every client and not have a 1,2,3.

You’re welcome @James – I agree it’s best to get out there and meet people. For smaller projects that’s exactly what we like to do.

Great post, Kati – all of these points ring true and the client perspective is something that’s not surfaced enough. We seem to have had a month of reviewing proposals and there’s been a few face-palm moments (as well as some fantastic responses). There’s definitely a tendency for lots of cutting and pasting and a reliance on generic language. The same rules apply as when writing a CV: if everyone says they are “enthusiastic”, “hard-working” or “passionate” then it quickly becomes meaningless. Similarly, if you are talking about “powerful” or “dynamic” tools, you’ve probably lost us. The proposals that won us over quickly got to heart of the problem we were tackling – as you say, “we want you to unpack the problem and explain how you’re going to go about solving it”. I was also drawn to proposals that pointed to inspiration from other projects (or even details from projects). If you want to demonstrate you are passionate about the web, show things have inspired you even if it’s not your own work. Oh, and a note on creds. Don’t underestimate the frustration of printing off hundreds of colour pages – save our toner!

That’s an interesting point @Rob – about showing you’re passionate about the web. I was going to include that as one of my tips – show you care about this stuff. Some of the agencies who pitched for our gig do some amazing blogging, running conferences, and so on. That all adds to the sense of working with people who really know their stuff.

Good post but… 33 pitches! For a website? Isn’t that a tad indulgent/wasteful of people’s time?

Thanks @James. We spoke with DCMS, our funders, beforehand and we decided to follow on an open procurement process through the OJEU framework. So we had two Q&A sessions for suppliers to come meet us and find out more, and decide if they wanted to pitch or not. At those sessions suppliers could also see just how much interest there was in the brief – both were packed. We were also keen on casting the net wide, and through that process we’ve made contact with some amazing agencies. While we could only select one for the website rethink project we are already working on other digital projects with some of the other suppliers who pitched.

Hi, just wanted to drop a quick ‘Thank you’ for that well-reflected and insightful overview – a great resource to challenge our proposals. (btw: love the V&A and hope to find an excuse soon to visit again :)).

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