When old is new again

Sep 19, 2016

Bells and whistles are nice, but when it comes time to write a winning proposal, a strong, focused message is still the way to go.

In recent months I have seen a number of questions in A/E marketing-related forums about classes, training, boot camps, etc., for various copyrighted or trademarked proposal processes and systems. I have also seen ads and received printed brochures for a number of these systems. Each one proclaims that it is the most popular and effective, and that thousands of A/E firms are using that process for successful marketing.

I find all these notices interesting, to one degree or another, but they all leave me with one question: If I select, learn, and use one of these processes or systems, what will differentiate my proposal from those of the other thousands of firms whose marketers have taken the same training?

Since no marketer actually wants to submit a proposal that shouts, “We’re just like every other A/E firm,” why does anyone want to use the same thing that everyone else is (supposedly) using?

For me, this defied all logic.

A while back I was working for a firm with multiple offices in multiple states when I received one of those brochures in the mail. I finally realized that I couldn’t avoid doing what everyone else was doing unless I took the class and learned what everyone else was being taught.

So I registered for the session, made my travel and hotel arrangements, and went off to Las Vegas to learn what “everyone else” was learning.

There were around 20 of us in the class, all from Western states. Some from big firms, some from small firms; some from multidiscipline firms, some from “boutique” or specialty firms; some from one-person marketing departments, some from large centralized marketing departments; and others from multi-office decentralized marketing departments.

The instructor was a man who turned out to know a lot about A/E marketing, and could communicate what he knew so simply that nobody had trouble “getting it.” From the textbook, I found very little that I didn’t already know. But from the instructor, I learned a lot of new things. I was also reminded of many things that I knew and did years ago, but didn’t do anymore.

The most valuable lesson I learned from the multi-day class was that anything that hadn’t been done in a long time would seem like something new the first few times it was done again. So ideas that had been used in the past and set aside when new technology or new techniques came along could once again have value.

As the 1974 Peter Allen song proclaimed: “Everything old is new again!”

So what is my current process? Essentially, I write to the RFQ/RFP.

Obviously, you have to follow the instructions in the RFQ/RFP, and follow them to the letter. You cannot omit anything the solicitation specifically calls for. You cannot reorganize the contents if an organization is given, no matter how much better or more logical you believe your organization would be.

For some reason, most clients/owners first ask about the firm submitting the proposal. In that case, I like to add an executive summary to show that I understand the project and have the capability to develop a good solution.

If no specific organization is given, the order in which the details or explanations of the requirements are presented is generally the order in which the client wants to see your submittal.

In the absence of such instruction, I like to start with my project understanding and approach. I really believe that, if I don’t demonstrate an understanding of the client’s challenges and my ability to solve them, the client has no need to read 50 pages about my firm before discovering that I can’t help.

In the long run, I don’t believe it’s about how you design the cover, or the colors and formats you choose for your graphics. As Matt Handal says, the purpose of images is not to support the text, but to make someone want to read the text in the first place.

So it’s always about the content, the ideas – whether you use “features, benefits, and proofs,” or other approaches. Of course the page has to be attractive, an “inviting” read, but the ideas are always more important. I don’t ever want to submit a proposal that is so “overdesigned” that the client can’t find my message.

Find the style that best conveys what you want to say – whether it’s the font, the page layout, the placement and design of graphics, the headers and footers, or any other element. But make sure your message is strong and clear, and not obscured by the visual aspects of the submittal.

If you want to take one of the classes or subscribe to one of the systems, use those aspects that work for you, but don’t adopt the complete system blindly.

Good thinking, good writing, clear presentation of thoughts – that’s what differentiates your submittal and makes for a winner.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant with the Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at siben@sibenconsult.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.