Don’t we all wish that we could always have it handed to us? However, in many instances, we’re in competition with a number of other firms for the assignment and in that scenario there’s usually some type of request for proposal to respond to.

What follows are some thoughts about issues that crop up from time to time at this stage in the sales process.

It Takes a Village

During the 6 years I’ve been at Firstborn I’ve seen my fair share of proposal requests. They come in all shapes, sizes and formats.

Some have elaborate requirements documented in a large tome that needs to be FTP’d somewhere or else it’ll wipe out your e-mail disk space quota.

Some are gorgeous wire frames that clearly demonstrate the site flow. Some take the form of a well-written creative brief.

Some are just an outline. And, at the other end of the spectrum, some are scrawled on the back of a beer coaster.

We can deal with just about any of these formats – including the beer coaster- so long as we have a solid indication of the exact scope of work, timeline and (hopefully) budget parameters.

In some instances, that’s clearly laid out in the RFP. If not, it may require a few detailed conversations with the client before we’re ready to write our proposal.

But, what really makes us run screaming into the night is when the RFP requires us to do some level of creative response in order to win the job.

What Are We Designing?

The reason we don’t like doing designs as part of a proposal is that without the usual discovery, and collaboration with our clients, we’re designing in a vacuum.

Firstborn immerses itself in each brand we work on. For instance, using Flash in a very unique way, we created an interactive kiosk for Fila that allows customers to get their foot scanned and walk out of the store with a custom fitted shoe.

When it came time to do testing, our production team became experts in orthodics and were literally selling shoes in Fila’s Madison Avenue flagship location.

There’s also some level of a discovery process to help determine the scope of the project from which we generate a creative brief, functional and technical specifications documents, that really lays the groundwork for the rest of the project.

Furthermore, when a potential client asks for comps they should be asking themselves, are they getting Firstborn’s best work? It’s also usually a red flag about their approach and how the relationship might work – or not work as the case may be.

We point to our portfolio to show the level of creative they can expect if they hire us. If they can’t connect the dots, are they a client we really want to work with anyway?

Exceptions, Exceptions.

There are exceptions, of course, especially if it’s a client we want to bring into the fold.

When we went after a job creating a mini-site for an exhibition of Dieter Roth’s work for the Museum of Modern Art, our proposal contained not one but two design directions AND a Flash demo of one of them.

Our efforts got us the gig. (Predictably, the design that was ultimately used on the site had nothing to do with the directions we included in our proposal.)

Another instance where we broke our rule was when we focused on breaking into the beverage/spirits industry (and hopefully get some free samples).

We answered an RFP from Bacardi for Türi Vodka and decided to do comps because we felt we could sink our teeth into this one and come up with a cool concept.

Firstborn employs a bunch of Europeans so that made us pick up on an idea revolving around a European rail pass that had users travelling to Estonia and exploring the sites.

This was a perfect (we thought) concept for the vodka that was from an obscure region of the world (sorry all you Estonians out there).

We worked our tushies off on some wonderful designs and composed a kick-ass proposal that acted as a creative brief. Bacardi was blown away by the idea BUT our design bore no resemblance to their print campaign which we were never shown.

The project went to another shop but as a result of our Türi efforts, we were awarded some great projects for Bacardi soon after (see www.corzo.com).

No Ticky No Laundry

We’re not being snooty about not doing comps – believe me, we’re snooty about plenty of other things (like integrating with other companies’ unclean code), but not this. As a 30 person company, we don’t have the resources to throw at a pitch the way some large agencies do.

Our nimble business model allows us to dedicate our people to specific projects and it doesn’t make sense to take people off paying gigs in order to do designs for free. And besides, would you expect to get into a Ferrari and get to drive it around town without putting a bazillion dollar deposit down the way Al Pacino did in “Scent of a Woman”?

Number Please

Besides not knowing what we’re designing and not getting paid for our work, another frustration is not knowing what the client wants to spend on the project.

I get a call from a possible client. We have a pleasant conversation/meeting in which he/she gives me a clear idea of the scope and timing from which to craft a proposal.

At the end, I ask “So, do you have a budget for the project?” All color drains from their face as Death from an Ingmar Bergman movie taps them on the shoulder with his scythe, “Well, er, not really.”

Okay, I’m a glutton for punishment. “Do you have a budget RANGE in mind?” “W-w-we were hoping you would tell us what it would cost.”

Fair enough. I review the project with our production team and we put together a proposal which I send a couple of days later. “So, do you have any questions about our proposal?” I ask following up with once they’ve had a chance to digest our document. “Oh the cost is WAY beyond what we have to spend.”


Receiving an RFP is the exciting result of a sales effort, referral or someone contacting us based on our reputation.

You never know what opportunity may be lurking in you inbox or when your phone rings. But it does have its disappointments and challenges apart from not winning the piece of business.

I’ll leave guessing about what people are looking for creatively and financially to the Amazing Kreskin.

About the Author, Kevin Arthur
VP Business Development, Firstborn

Kevin Arthur is Vice President of Business Development at Firstborn. He has been with Firstborn since June 2000 and was originally hired as a Producer.

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