Ask a marketing person at an architecture firm what four words are most likely to elicit a sound akin to a cat spitting up a hairball and I suspect they’ll repeat the sentence, “It’s just a proposal.” These words are usually spoken by a principal in a down market with a utilization rate that’s too low for comfort or a go-getter new business developer anxious to get a mark, any mark, in the win column.
I understand why this makes sense to the person saying it. They need a win; they have this marketing staff they call overhead, and they want to make sure they’re getting enough output to justify those salaries. The lion’s share of the work to be done on proposals is done by those overhead folks, so the commitment on the part of the principal or business developer is relatively small until they are shortlisted. For introverts writing a proposal is way easier than picking up the phone and reaching out to someone for new business, plus it gives them something to design. Finally and most maddeningly, everybody has a story about how one time this strategy netted them an interview and/or a project. They just forget to mention that they only have one such story.
I find it important to reframe the issue for the “It’s just a proposal” chorus and instead talk about the cost of a win. Let’s say for example that it takes you about $5000 worth of people time to put out a proposal. That doesn’t seem like much, right? However, if your shortlist rate on proposals is 25% because you’re going after work you are unlikely to get, it actually costs you $20,000 to get an interview. Plus you’ve burned out those marketing overhead folks who have been at the office until midnight for three weeks straight with not a glimmer of success to show for it. Spontaneously bursting into tears is not an unreasonable reaction at that juncture.
So, my dear marketing colleagues, when you hear “it’s just a proposal”, instead of picking up the letter opener you were just about to wave around wild-eyed, calmly challenge your principals and business developers to walk you through the go/no-go decision on this one. If you want to be a respected strategic resource instead of an overhead cost, you have to behave like one.