Let’s start the new year off by eschewing theoretical advice in favor of some tactical guidance you can put to good use right away to improve the effectiveness of your proposals.

I’m going to share with you my formula for the perfect proposal cover letter.

Why is a cover letter so important?

It may be the only section of your proposal or RFP response that your client actually reads (besides the pricing section). Sure, that’s a cynical attitude, but it’s based on personal experience as well as the experience of other experts, like agency search consultants, that’s been shared with me.

This should be enough to scare you away from the usual polite blah blah blah that I typically see in agency cover letters. Instead, embrace the cover letter as a strategic sales tool for presenting a persuasive argument for hiring your agency.

I'll get to my formula for the perfect proposal cover letter in a minute (and if you simply can't wait, you can scroll down a bit), but first here are a few "dos" and "don'ts".

Do:

  • Demonstrate you understand and can fulfill the needs of the marketers who are reviewing the response.

  • Remind them why they invited you to pitch this piece of business. Or, if necessary, reframe perceptions or redirect to stronger arguments.

  • Hook them with your problem-solving ability.

  • Let your personality and enthusiasm shine through (however, don’t give enthusiasm a greater role than it deserves and don’t substitute it for fact-based evidence of your qualifications).

  • Keep it to one page. This is an exercise in both restraint as well as ruthless editing skills. Often, you’ll benefit from the help of an objective expert.

Don’t:

  • Blab on about everything you want them to know about your agency. That’s your enthusiasm (and maybe your hubris) getting the better of you.

  • Offer information that’s not relevant to them. For example, if you’re pitching a digital assignment, resist the urge to tell them all about your experience in traditional media. Your motive may be to paint the picture of a capable, multifaceted agency, but instead it confuses the reader and undermines the strength of your pitch.

  • Tell more than show. Don’t talk about how passionate you are about their business category. That’s an abstract statement from which it’s impossible to extract meaning. Instead, tell them something concrete—a recent success or an example of how you go the extra mile. Let them conclude whether or not that showed passion.

  • Waste valuable real estate. See the “one page” rule above.

Make it obvious to those who will be reviewing the proposal that the cover letter must be read first. Depending on the format, the letter may be the first page within a document or a separate page. In some cases, you’ll want to duplicate the letter in the body of the email that you send with your submission. Don’t worry–it won’t appear repetitive. You’re simply increasing your chances that the client will read it.

The Formula for a Perfect Proposal Cover Letter

Here’s the formula. I invite you to treat it as a basic guide and adapt it so that it works well for your agency within whatever restraints or requirements you may have:

Paragraph 1

Open by thanking them! Don’t be obsequious. Keep it short and simple then move on to more important things.

Paragraph 2

Offer an insightful observation on the client’s business or category.

If this comes out of your recent work experience or research, tell them that. It immediately communicates you have something of value to offer them. They may be more likely to pay a premium for it or, at the very least, it may tip the balance in your favor against another bidder.

No proprietary research? That’s OK. Tap into your own consumer mindset. What are your personal biases toward the product, service, or category? This not only shows your ability to think strategically even without the benefit of prior experience, it demonstrates that you’ve cared enough to devote some time to think critically about their issues.

Paragraphs 3 and 4

Tie your observations to what you see as the two to three biggest marketing priorities they need to tackle. Then, reassure them that you’ve solved these kinds of problems before by mentioning specific examples.

You're telling them why you’re a (perhaps the most?) qualified candidate for the assignment. Don’t go deep into detail – you’ll offer the full story later in your case studies.

Paragraph 5

If the RFP requires a long or complicated response, you may want to offer some brief way-finding advice, especially if you want the reviewers to pay more attention to certain sections over others.

Closing paragraph

Give them a small glimpse into the future success you imagine for them—category leadership, a reversal of declining revenue, a successful product launch, etc.

Finally, always have a real person sign their name! Ideally, the CEO or partner(s).

Does this format look like one you’re already following? Great!

Is it working? Not as much as you’d like it to? It may simply need refinement rather than a wholesale redesign. Take a critical look at your recent cover letters and apply the “dos” and “don’ts” above. That may offer an immediate path toward improvement.

Want to see some examples of great cover letters? Send me an email or a message on LinkedIn and I’ll be happy to share.

Do you have another technique that you’ve used successfully that you’d be willing to share? I’d love to see it!