Jay Baron is a strategist at Madtown, a design agency in Madison, WI. This article originally appeared on Design Instruct and has been republished with permission. 


It was late at night in the office. I was putting on the finishing touches on a proposal; the request for proposal (RFP) stated the deadline was tomorrow.

I finished it up and sent it off to the prospective client, thinking to myself that sending it late at night will show them how committed we were to their project.

A funny thing happened. The response deadline listed in the RFP passed, and I never heard back from them again.

Six months later, a quick glance at their website revealed that they hadn’t changed a thing. This led me to believe that they never had the intention to hire anyone, and the RFP was a complete waste of time and energy for our firm.

And if you really think about it, when clients have nothing invested in the proposal-writing process (money, time, energy, etc.), why should they even care to respond to our proposals?

It was at that moment when I realized that writing long, detailed proposals — and the entire RFP process in general — is a bad gig.

It’s time designers stand up and just say no to RFPs without compensation.

Proposals are spec work

It’s not unreasonable to say that most designers are against speculative work. But aren’t proposals another form of spec work?

Prospective clients view most agencies like a free public service because of how much work and ideas we’re willing to give away in our proposals.

Why creating proposals is a bad idea

After writing proposals for several years at Madtown, we became conditioned to believe that proposal-writing was just part of the process for gaining new clients.

What we didn’t realize was that it was effectively hurting our bottom line.

Here are a few reasons why creating proposals for prospective clients is a bad idea:

1. Unpaid proposals perpetuate the bargain-basement culture

Proposal-writing is nothing more than a quick way for prospective clients to find the lowest price and not necessarily the best designer for the job.

Price shouldn’t be the sole reason to hire a professional design service provider over another. There are many factors to consider, including talent, technical capabilities to provide the solution needed, experience in the industry, and so forth, and they must be factored into the decision.

A rock-bottom initial price from a low-quality service provider can cost more in the long-run because the client may need to hire another agency to finish or improve their work, showing how bad price is as a decision-making signal in the service industry.

The RFP process puts the focus on the price tag of the service, which might be suitable for commodities, but not for design services (because services are not all created equally).

2. Proposals cost service providers

The larger the proposal, the more time and effort we are willing to spend. Therefore, it’s not hard to spend several work days working on a proposal to try and win a client’s business, only to find that they were just comparison-shopping around and had no real interest in hiring your firm.

Think of how much time and effort we could have given to our paying clients instead. Or the opportunity costs of spending so much time in an endeavor already bound for failure.

3. You can miss things

Clients will often hold designers to the scope and price outlined in the proposal.

It’s impossible for a responsible designer to know what resources and talents will be required for a project’s success by going through a simple form-filling exercise or reading an RFP.

Also, this process has one giant flaw: If you provide the free solution in your proposal, you must ultimately agree with your prospective client’s own diagnosis of his business problem. You’re only getting paid to do the job on your proposal. Which, in turn, makes it difficult to gauge how effective your firm is in solving their problem.

What happens if, a month into the project, you find out that your proposal was woefully inaccurate because you were bidding on a project without the right information? Is the client to blame, or the designer who allowed the client to dictate a bad process?

4. You’re giving away your most valuable ideas

As designers, we often think our most valuable work is our deliverables. There is real, tangible value in our deliverables of course, but it’s the work, ideas, strategies, experience and knowledge we put into crafting those deliverables that count the most.

What creative professionals do best is finding unique, strategic ways for a client to overcome their business problem. In many cases, the content of a good proposal can be similar to a consulting report (which companies pay huge sums of money for).

What to do instead

Professional designers are becoming more selective in the types of clients they undertake.

Given that companies receive several proposals at a time, the odds that your firm will be selected is slim.

Instead of writing a proposal for a client, invite them to have a conversation, or two, or three.

Often times through the back and forth, through the exchange of ideas, we are able to discover that what the client had in mind isn’t what they really need. Sometimes they need something more. Sometimes they need something that’s completely different.

Once you’ve uncovered the real problem, invite them to a proposal process that you charge for.

Keep in mind that while other designers are going after 100% of the client’s budget, you’re only going for a fraction of that because you’re only asking for them to pay for a proposal first.

If the prospect wants to know how much they should spend on a website design, we can give them a price range over the phone; we don’t need a drawn out document to do that for us.

If the client still isn’t willing to pay for your proposal, you can play the pitch game and cross your fingers that you’re selected, or you can keep your dignity and walk away. I hope for the sake of your firm you choose to walk. Let’s change this spec work proposal-writing culture.

What issues are you running into with your proposal process?

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