The ones that got away…

enhanced-buzz-wide-24473-1329860023-4You know, in this business, you don’t land every single client. Even if you are Fletcher Prince.


Truth. You have to fish a lot and bid a lot and write all kinds of proposals and it often goes nowhere. Heck, I bet I have lost at least half the jobs I have bid on.

I have been taking a break from Fletcher Prince to explore teaching (which I love, maybe there is a way to do both). But I haven’t dropped Fletcher Prince altogether. I am just reassessing. Today, I was listening to some news about the Muslim Brotherhood and I thought, oh, I remember them. They were almost a client.

The toughest part about proposals is that you pour your heart and soul into them, and when you don’t get them, 90% of the time you don’t find out why. We ask for feedback but rarely get that. I think that is not unusual for this industry. So you never really know why you didn’t make the cut. It’s demoralizing. Failures are part of success, but knowing why you failed is essential for growth. That part is often missing.

These are sad stories, but in some cases, preventable tragedies. And in other cases, just part of the way business is done.  Learn from them, grasshopper.

1. National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Oh, this one hurt. David and I really wanted this one.  We both like to work with clients who do good things, and NAMI is right up there with the best. We thought we were so close! They needed a website and they didn’t have a big budget. Usually, that is a good fit for us. We met with them and learned a lot about their mission, and submitted the best proposal we could create.  But…it was not to be.  It happens.  It was, pardon the expression, depressing.

Lesson learned: Well, it’s hard to take a lesson from this. We did everything right. We just didn’t make the grade. I guess the lesson is, sometimes, you can do your best, but your best isn’t good enough. You just have to deal.

2. The Muslim Brotherhood. Before the economic downturn, Fenton Communications was using David for a lot of their graphic design, and occasionally batting over a client that wasn’t right for them.  That’s how we landed the Florida Education Association, and how they put us in touch with potential clients like the Muslim Brotherhood.  But we did not get the Muslim Brotherhood.  This was before the Arab Spring, and they needed a website. They needed some very basic PR work.  The budget was not large.  It probably is, now. I wondered what they were all about.  Were they like a Muslim Knights of Columbus?  Well, sort of, but not really 🙂 They did not yet have a Wikipedia page. Of course, now they are all over the news.  But at one, time, they read our proposal for a website. We thought it was in the bag, but we didn’t get it. Probably a good thing, considering how uninformed I was.  Who knows why?  We just weren’t the right fit.  Oh, well.  We did go on to do pro bono work for two American pro-democracy in Bahrain groups, though.

Lesson learned: Writers say write about what you know. This can also apply to projects. If you really know little about the issues and countries involved, it’s not appropriate to try and bid on a project.

3. Lake Placid CVB (visitor’s bureau).  They needed branding work and a website. We gave it the old college try and we didn’t get it.  This was heartbreaking for two reasons. I used to have a family home in Lake Placid and David has a family home near Lake Placid, so we have both spent a lot of time in this beautiful place. Having a client there would mean frequent trips, trips we could have written off, even better. The other heartbreaking reason was the proposal for the RFP was so freaking difficult to complete. It felt like finals trying to get that sucker together.  And we never made it to first base. Sigh.

Lesson learned: Stick close to home. Proposals are about connections, too. If you are a small firm, like Fletcher Prince, if you can’t meet face to face easily, you may be hoping for too much.  It certainly would make it tough if you actually had won the bid.

4. St. Charles, MD.  A new community needed a social media program, soup to nuts. It was one of those situations where they seemed to know where they wanted to be but they weren’t sure how to get there.  It’s hard to do proposals like this, because you feel a bit like you are shooting in the dark — there’s no hint of a budget, no real deadlines, no specific requirements. They basically just want you to come up with a plan that will work.  You can only hope your plan will fly with them.

I started to get suspicious (or paranoid, depending on how you look at it) after this RFP.  I mean, it could have been that our proposal stank, but when we heard nothing, I started thinking — maybe some clients — especially the ones who have not really talked to us in person — are using us for some free consultation.

I began to get more cagey and conservative with my time and intellectual capital.  The truth is, proposals are rich with billable marketing advice and insights, and usually include quite a bit of research and competitive analysis.  That’s a lot of work for no return at all. After this, I began charging a fee for detailed proposals. Estimates were still free, but major, multi-page proposals were not. That way, I would receive some compensation for my advice, and the amount would be credited to the invoice, if were hired.

Lesson learned: Even in subcontracting situations, never, ever write a major proposal without meeting with the client first, in person. Make sure you are a real contender, before you put too much work into a proposal.

5. Hickok Cole. What a train wreck this client relationship turned into. I lost track of how many meetings we had this reputable architecture firm. We were hired, eventually, to create a video. It was a surprise to me because I actually recommended that they hire one of my more experienced colleagues for their project.  But they wanted me, and I was flattered as all get out.  At first.

I made the mistake of not collecting a deposit. I didn’t make that mistake again.  I know now that when you take a client’s money, they have an incentive to work with you to stay on track.  Nice people but…meetings started getting cancelled, because they didn’t feel ready. I tried to explain that it was the purpose of the meeting to discuss those questions, and that I would help them get ready. The bride just wouldn’t come to the altar.

The client called me with less than an hour’s notice to tell me that they would have to cancel, once again, because they didn’t feel ready to talk about the video.  This meeting had already been rescheduled twice. I was already in DC. The drive had not been fun. It was a hot day. I had declined a meeting with another client to take this meeting.  I had paid for parking 🙂  So, I was steamed.  I tallied how many hours I had put into educating this client about video.  That amount definitely reached the amount it would cost to produce a video.  It exceeded it. I was losing money, technically.  Months had dragged on.  And I had no video to show for it.  So, after explaining my position, I broke up with the client, and sent them the invoice for my time. To their credit, they paid it, but I never got to do their video, and it felt like a divorce. It just felt bad.

Lesson learned: How you write your proposal and agreement can make all the difference in the success of the project. Decide where you can be flexible and where you will stand firm. Get paid upfront (at least 50% deposit) and bill for your time for meetings that go outside the scope of the project.

6. The Just Ask Prevention Project.  Along with a couple of other companies, we were asked to bid on this Fairfax County teen sex trafficking project, after being referred by a client to whom we had provided social media training services. The specifics for the website were very slim, but the budget was bare bones.  We talked about social media and video, as well, but were advised to just stick to an estimate for basic website production.

We created a proposal at a discounted rate, since nonprofits were involved and the issue was right in our community, and we wanted the job.

We didn’t get the project, but a much larger, out-of-state company did — one that created what appeared to my experienced eye as high quality, multi-thousand dollar commercial websites, that frankly, we couldn’t touch.  We never did figure out how they were able to produce the work at seriously below-market rates. They did an outstanding job, but the match between the stated budget and the outcome is something I still have not been able to fathom.  It could have been that this firm was willing to take on a below-market project, as some firms will, with the idea that the website will be submitted for awards work, or for good will.  Or maybe their websites really don’t cost very much to produce, actually.  Who knows?  Still, I am happy for the organization because if they really achieved all that they did, for the quoted budget, they landed quite a bargain!

Lesson learned: Sometimes, the deck is stacked against you. Small fish can’t compete with big fish.  You can’t win ’em all!


About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.

Posted on May 14, 2014, in Client/Agency Relationship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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