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Powerful Proposals: The integration of Strategy, Graphics, and Writing

Today’s post is courtesy of Ali Ross, MS, a marketing coordinator in the Boston office of Stantec. She can be reached at

As a member of SMPS Boston, I’ve been lucky enough to attend quite a few educational programs the group has offered. Last month, I attended “Powerful Proposals: The integration of Strategy, Graphics, and Writing” with Dan Vlahos, creative director at Shepley Bulfinch; Kathy McMahon, associate principal at CBT Architects; Barbara Hicks, associate, director of marketing & media at Margulies Perruzzi Architects; and Matt Hawk, senior marketing coordinator at Fay Spofford & Thorndike. These four top marketers shared their insights and experiences on how best to showcase their firms in request for proposals (RFP) and request for qualifications (RFQ) submissions.

The overarching theme of the discussion was how to improve the proposal process, from the lead stage to lessons learned following the submission. In theory, many of the steps discussed were things we do, or should do during the proposal process. However, I found many useful reminders and new ideas on how to approach each step along the way.

1. Go/no-go criteria. During the go/no go process, have a checklist of criteria (suggested list contained nine) whereby five or more of the criteria need to be met before proceeding. Having an established guideline helps shorten the go/no-go decision time and focuses attention on the reasons as to why the project is being pursued in the first place. The most important notion I gained from this was that it is imperative to have a champion, someone who will own the proposal.

2. Choosing the team. The point driven home here was not to just choose a team either based on availability or who has worked well together in the past, but build a team that you’d want to bring to the interview. Who fits with the client: past experience, skill, personality, etc.?

3. Customize, customize, customize. If more than 50% of a response is boiler plate, there is no chance of a win, according to the panelists. In terms of customization, here are some comments that were made by both the panelists and the attendees:

  • Customize everything (headers, footers, cover, etc.)
  • Think about the cover – what material is it, how does it feel, if touting sustainability, is the material sustainable?
  • Don’t let the cover be a final thought
  • Base the proposal on the client, not your firm
  • Using prior work on the cover for other clients is risky. The new client may not like being grouped with a certain type of client or design.

4. Graphics/layout. A question was asked about technical people nit-picking about layout/graphics and wanting to play a large part in these things. The response, to me, was very helpful, as I face this challenge often. Build trust, synergy, and a relationship, but feel comfortable saying, “Focus on the content. I’ll focus on the design.” Other ideas that were discussed included:

  • White space – it is our friend. Even if there is a page limit, find a way to leave some space for the reader’s eye to go. Have at least 10 percent of white space.
  • Always start your layout with a grid format. Typically four columns are good with ¼ -inch gutter. A good rule of thumb is for columns to be no wider than a dozen words across.
  • Use graphics to help call out special features.
  • Color helps.
  • Use a variety of type sizes.
  • Use call out lines, which is larger text, and make them custom to the client.

5. Rule of 10. This rule covered a few different aspects of a proposal.

  • If you have to make a decision on font size, 10 is good.
  • If you have more than 10 images in a spread, you have too many. Try to keep it between three to five images. Have a sense of hierarchy.

To wrap up, I would like to share a few other tidbits to get all our minds thinking.

  • When sending a PDF version to a client, it should be 4 MB or less. Try not to use an FTP site.
  • Still send a hard copy if only requesting a PDF.
  • Should we format sub-consultant information?
  • Reserve time for the printer to break!
  • To save time, use the language in the RFP. Change from passive to active tense.
  • Review the proposal, preferably twice – marketing and a third-party technical person.
  • Identify three to five issues and repeat this theme throughout the proposal.
  • An RFQ is to talk about our firm. An RFP is to talk about theirs.
  • Schedule a debrief, whether it is a win or loss.
  • Always confirm receipt.

0 responses to “Powerful Proposals: The integration of Strategy, Graphics, and Writing”

  1. What a great and helpful presentation that was! Thanks for this summary of key points.

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