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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Get Them to Kick the Desk     MARKETING SNIPPETS: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. - Albert Einstein     GRANNYISM #47: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.~via SweetLeaf

Every now and then, the topic of business proposals arises in marketing conversations I have with owners and executives. Occasionally, someone will ask me whether I've ever written one. When this happens, I usually laugh a little before giving my answer because, clearly, it's going to come as a shock. "Actually," I'll usually say, "I've written upwards of seven or eight ... hundred."

I do recall my first one, by the way. It was in 1997 or so, and I'd taken a writing job at Deloitte (one of the "Big Four" audit firms). (Back then, it was still the Big Six, as Price Waterhouse had yet to merge with Coopers & Lybrand, and Arthur Andersen had yet to achieve infamy via the Enron debacle.) Anyway, it was an audit proposal for an enormous banking system based in Pennsylvania -- probably a few hundred thousand dollars in business for the firm. I quickly wondered what in hell I'd gotten myself into, as that was coincidentally one of the worst proposal experiences of the aforementioned 700+. Fortunately, it was a win, though. All of those late nights in the swank downtown highrise paid off (well, not for me... but I think someone received a fat bonus, anyway).

Deloitte was a fine training ground for this professional niche, as this was serious work and covered a broad range of high-level business concepts ranging from auditing to tax work to management consulting. The proposals were big-money documents, too. Most of them were at least $50,000, and many reached into the millions. (I think my record was $4 million-plus in scope.) This amount seems staggering to many, of course, but you get used to it after a while. I was pretty good at it, too -- even spearheaded a few successful "Office of the Chairman" proposals (reserved for accounts that Deloitte considered nationally significant).

Deloitte represented nearly two years of my life. At two per week, that was easily my first 200 or so. I then spent a decade at a regional CPA firm, where I probably averaged another one per week. So, that's roughly 500+ more. Hence, my ballpark range. I've probably been known to remark "nearly a thousand" from time to time, but I suppose that's a slight exaggeration.

You know, when you first embark upon a career -- and, mine started in publishing at Prentice Hall -- you retain copies of things for your portfolio. A decent writer, editor, designer, or marketer will amass a nice, large folder of samples after a year or two. It's a funny process... You slowly replace certain items with better-looking ones, you replace certain writing samples with better-sounding ones, etc. Maybe you keep this up for a few years. But, man, after 10 (or, in my case, 20!) years, the novelty of actually seeing (or keeping) the product of your labor wears off a little. In all honesty, it's more like, "Hey, I'm glad you liked the piece. Now, about that invoice I sent you..." :-)

But, I did retain a few dozen samples, thankfully. Most are packed away somewhere. But, I recently found a few to at least prove that these things are in fact tangible deliverables. (See the photo atop this article.) This is what business proposals look like, generally. When you've been in the game as long as I have (and have been on the receiving end quite a bit, too), you come to notice that it's not rocket science. They all pretty much look and sound the same (or, at least, they should contain the same basic elements).

You know, back at Deloitte, the sheer volume was so enormous that, every now and then if you were working with a firm partner who didn't mind taking an out-of-the-box approach, you could actually get a little creative. This was fairly unusual, as most CPAs and MBAs aren't the most free-thinking people in the world. (Although, for $400/hour, what do you expect?) But, one example that comes to mind as I look at that picture is the one on the top-right. It was for auditing a large university. Somehow, I talked the partner into structuring the proposal as a college catalog, complete with "campus map" inserts printed on onion-skin paper throughout. The "History" department was the "About Deloitte" section; the "Faculty" was the section of auditor resumes; the "Bursar's Office" was the section on professional fees. Fun stuff...

These days, any proposal writing I do is for myself. But, I'm still interested in helping others. Proposal writing is pure marketing, after all! But, quite honestly, I'd be most interested in a company willing to do something a little different. I can't say exactly what I mean by that but, if you want to hire me to brainstorm with you, to find a solution that's both professional and innovative / creative, then give me a call. If it's a routine proposal, I'm probably uninterested. But, if you're really chasing down an opportunity of a lifetime, and you need a heavy hitter on your side, and are willing to think outside the box, and are willing to make an investment in the process, then give me a call -- (503) 902-HTML.

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