Mercedez Thompson, MA, CP APMP, Shipley BDC
A friend and colleague recently presented a webinar about proposal design. Afterward, she shared with me that she was receiving very mixed feedback. Some, myself included, raved about her design skills and tips. Others found the material too niche and suggested it was applicable only to marketing professionals working at large firms with seemingly endless resources. Among the dissatisfied, a theme emerged: I don’t feel seen or heard as a proposal professional at a small firm.
While the above-mentioned friend and colleague does not work with endless resources, I felt like many of her points could apply regardless of team size. Our conversation led me to consider how bid and proposal work differs between small and large firms.
Personally, I’ve worked in diverse industries and within organizations ranging from seven to 10,000+ staff. I know something of the woes of both small and large firms. And while there are nuances, I have found that our biggest obstacles are ultimately the same—regardless of firm size.
WOE: I wear many, many hats.
When I worked at a small firm, I was in charge of every proposal that went out the door. I was also in charge of ordering business cards, updating the company website, managing all social media accounts, planning events, ordering lunches, and making sure the office rugs were picked up and cleaned on a monthly basis. You name it. The variety was nice, but it’s nearly impossible to be great at something when you do everything. There just isn’t the bandwidth to develop expertise.
One of my greatest motivators for moving to a large firm was the opportunity to focus on proposal management. How much better could I be if I wasn’t spread so thin? Yet, even though I was no longer updating the company website, I found myself handling award submissions, coordinating conference abstracts, booking travel, ordering lunches, even fixing the office printer. My department manager worried that I was too specialized and wondered how I could be involved earlier in capture planning and later in project execution. The fact is, large or small, marketing is often seen as a catch-all position: an ongoing problem that may prevent us from performing our actual duties—you know, the ones written in the job description—well.
WOE: When it comes to proposals, it’s a one-man-show.
I still have nightmares about nobody showing up for a kick-off meeting. Unfortunately, this was quite normal during my small firm days. I was the beginning and end of the marketing team, and the “process,” if you could call it that, was lax. Many of my coworkers didn’t understand why they had to be involved in proposals—that was my job, after all. I shudder to recall entire technical approaches written by yours truly.
Attendance at meetings generally improved at large firms, but accountability around deadlines did not. I found that my technical leads were even busier and spread even thinner, with pressure to be constantly billable. I was working more proposals with bigger values but still doing it all—from design to writing to reviewing and editing. It turns out that many of us have to do the jobs of three or four people to submit a proposal.
WOE: Expectations around volume impact quality.
I’ve worked for a small firm that didn’t have a Go/No-Go process. And I’ve worked for a large firm that had one but managed to “Go” everything anyways. The result is the same: an emphasis on volume that results in lower-quality proposals. I once had a senior proposal manager tell me that he would win nine contracts a year, regardless of whether he proposed on ten or 100. While I’m sure his example was an exaggeration, the point holds true. An ongoing battle, regardless of firm size, is advocating for stricter selection when it comes to what we are pursuing.
In considering the differences between marketing at small and large farms, I found that we have more in common than not. It would serve us well to unite around these similarities and work together towards solutions and strategies that help us add more value.
Mercedez Thompson finds and shares a firm’s unique stories to connect with clients and build business. As a Proposal Manager at Burns & McDonnell, Mercedez collaborates with business development and project management leadership to define distinctive value propositions and execute proposal win strategy within the Water practice. She has extensive experience in all phases of the proposal lifecycle including positioning, technical content development, proposal management, and shortlist interviewing.