Great Proposals Start with a Long-Term Strategy

Great Proposals Start with a Long-Term Strategy

I can’t believe it was almost 17 years ago when I started at Burns & McDonnell, a civil engineering branch office in St. Louis, Missouri as a Marketing Coordinator. Even then, it was so challenging trying to get project information for the first proposal I was working on. I wish I could say that times have changed. Unfortunately, those same struggles I faced then, seem to be prevalent in our industry now. But we all know, in order to create great proposals, we need great information. Winning proposals start with great data. In this post, I’m going to talk more about how to get great information for your proposals and also some other tips and tricks for taking your proposals to the next level!

Getting that Dang Project Description!

I wish I could tell you that it’s as easy as offering your project manager a beer in trade for that project description, usually it’s not that easy. Over the past 17 years, the best way I’ve found to get the marketing data I needed was the process that was in place at Lend Lease (or Bovis Lend Lease – 15 years ago). When I worked as a marketing coordinator at Bovis Lend Lease, whether or not a project team or the principal of an office got their entire bonus was tied to whether or not the marketing team had the key project information for that specific project or the projects for that office. Our marketing director tracked the information in a simple spreadsheet and the information that was required was: final project sheet created with final photography signed off on, project start and completion dates, project construction value, and project description. Because I was younger and new to my career, I didn’t realize what a gift having this process in place was! Now, as I’ve looked back over the years, I’ve realized how brilliant that process and bonus incentive was. Each quarter, I didn’t have to beg project managers for the information I needed. The principal asked me where we were at or what percent of the information did we have completed and then he would reach out to the assigned project managers for each job. The bonus incentive for project data still remains as one of the best ways to get this information to marketing teams. 

The Infographic Cover Letter

So many clients are used to our standard cover letters, “We are pleased to submit our response to the XYZ project. Enclosed you will find evidence of our ability to perform on similar projects on time and within budget.” Oy – hit the snooze button. There is nothing technically wrong with the words written above, they are just echoed by many marketers. Next time you write your cover letter and executive summary, use it as an opportunity to do more of a magazine-like design spread with a lot of high-impact graphics, and images to convey your story. 

Show Them Don’t Tell Them

Graphics increase reader retention, stick in long-term memory and will help communicate your messages faster. Not only that, but graphics also can help with writer’s block. If you’ve ever started working on a project approach and find yourself blocked, a great way to get unblocked is to find a great image of the project you’re writing about or some element of the project you’re writing about and it can really help get those juices flowing again. Not only that, but your reader will thank you for breaking up the text a little with an interesting image.

It’s About Progress Not Perfection

We can be really hard on ourselves when it comes to our work. After reading Dorrie Clark’s The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World I realized how long it takes to really perfect the proposal process for not only an individual but for any AEC firm as a whole. It can take years of refining the sales/marketing proposal process, messaging, and graphics to get to a result that resonates with a particular market. I think it’s harder for newer marketers and younger firms to realize that what they see the more established firms produce took years and not months or days to create. In order to excel in producing excellent proposal responses, it takes a team of people, each doing their part along each step of the process in order to craft a proposal that will win. 

Specialize – You Don’t Have to be an Expert at Everything

When I first started out in the industry, I didn’t know I was allowed to say “no” or “that isn’t really in my job description.” If someone decided that it was marketing-related, I just took it on. Not a bad way to get started in the industry, but I wish I would have let myself early on focus on what I was really good at and learn how to delegate the rest. 17 years ago, there weren’t such great digital tools out there and now there are so many it can be challenging to figure out which tools are right for you and your firm. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I found my writing skills to be very valuable at most AEC firms. However, engineers and contractors didn’t always care how “beautiful” something looked and it was quite different when I worked for architects. Looking back, I would say if you lean a particular way as a marketer in the AEC industry, whether that might be graphics or more towards a writing focus, stay true to that and find tools that support your weaker areas.


Taking your proposals to the next level requires a long-term approach but it doesn’t have to be a boring journey to get there. Next week, try pitching the idea to your executive team about making space in the bonus structure to capture marketing information or try making your cover letter and executive summary a little more visually captivating. Read Dorrie Clark’s book about becoming a Long-Term Thinker in a Short Term world, and maybe take a class on a topic that really interests you. No matter what you do, remember to drop me a comment or give me a shout on social media to let me know what worked for you!