Your proposal matters and weighs heavy in your client’s eyes when you’re bidding for work. I talked to Harji Singh, owner of New York-based agency Azai Studios about their process of creating tantalizingly beautiful agency proposals that wow buyers and win work.
Singh is walking down a street when I reach him over a video call to his smartphone. I get a glimpse of a blue sky and tall New York skyscrapers behind him before we switch to audio. In the gap between two meetings, he tells the story of how he came to be an agency founder and what he’s learned in those years about crafting the kind of agency proposals that wow buyers.
From Real-Estate to Creative Services
Singh’s agency, Azai Studios, describes itself as “An independent creative agency with footprints in New York, Dubai, and Riga. We are curiosity-led, goal-focused and inspired by our desire to tell stories and create brands for a wide range of businesses that matter. We do this by solving problems through strategy, design, technology, and content production.”
Being an agency owner wasn’t Singh’s first career choice: “My background is actually in real estate finance which is totally on the other side of the spectrum of you know, actual creative work and stuff like that.” He got into the agency business through a vendor he worked with. The vendor saw the potential in working with someone with Singh’s skills and contacts.
Two days later, Singh was working for that agency. It was a small shop of about 10 people which meant everyone had to be something of a generalist. Singh eventually managed all the real estate clients for the real estate arm of the agency.
After a year or so, he got tired of only dealing with real estate clients. Singh wanted to work with clients in other verticals such as fashion, automotive, and technology. He also had ideas for how the agency could improve their work. He figured he might as well start his own agency. After all, he did have the network. He founded Azai Studios soon after. That was four years ago.
“The Cool Department”
When I ask about what makes them unique, Singh describes his studio as “the cool department.” Clients love hanging out with them, even after work. Being a small shop helps. Especially when working with larger companies, thanks to the contrast between their studio office and corporate work landscapes.
Singh says their motto is to give 110% and that means they have to be selective about whom they work with. For that to be possible, they only work with companies and brands they care about.
1. Always Pre-Qualify to Vouch the Buyer’s Willingness to Pay
Fantastic agency proposals take time to create. Singh and his team are careful to spend it on the right buyers: “Before we even do any proposals we vouch them [the buyer] on the phone to see if they’re meeting our minimum engagement [fee].”
“We vouch that they could afford us before we even send in the proposal… We’ll suggest ‘hey our minimum engagements are so-and-so, if that’s something you guys can meet in terms of financial requirements we’d be happy to send your proposal right there’ … so it’s not like a surprise to them so to speak.”
“I think pre-qualifying the actual client is the most important step along the entire way because what we’ve noticed you could charge $5,000 or you can charge $500,000 for the same type of work. At the end of the day it’s the same process and same work.”
2. Use Value-Based Pricing and Price the Client
With hourly pricing, whether to charge 5,000 or half a million wouldn’t be an issue. Those projects would be entirely different since the second project would involve 100 times more time. But Azai Studios uses value-based pricing with a fixed price for the entire process. That means pricing the client, not the time spent.
I ask if they have tried tiered pricing, and they haven’t. Instead they give one price but break it down into a series of deliverables and activities.
Singh likens it to a restaurant menu that gives just enough away:“After we have sent into them we always have a follow up call because they always have questions: ‘what exactly is the strategy workshop you guys do?’”
The idea is to give a high level overview so the buyer will have questions about the specifics giving the agency another opportunity to sell.
3. “If It Doesn’t Look Amazing Clients Automatically Think ‘Hey These Guys Aren’t for Us’”
“I learned that perception is so big when it comes to proposals… the sad part is these people [other agencies] are sending such boring dry proposals that look liked copy and pasted templates and it’s just unattractive,” Singh says.
“You have 5 seconds to grab their attention with a proposal and if it’s not attractive-looking and if it doesn’t look amazing then they’re like ‘Hmm! These guys aren’t for us’… you have to make your proposal seen as if it is phenomenal!”
4. Individualize the Agency Proposal Experience for Each Client
To win the client in those 5 seconds, Singh and his team customize each and every agency proposal. They go so far as to create a beautiful dashboard for the client where they can log in to view it.
“It’s a password-protected screen and it has a background video.” The video is specific to the client’s industry: “If it’s like a fashion client we’ll have like photo shoots in the background or if it’s a real estate plan we will have development in the background.”
5. Avoid Templates at All Costs
Singh explains that the idea is to sell the client on the idea from the very beginning. After this initial wow, with industry-specific details, the client can view the proposal itself. Singh explains that they work hard to keep each proposal unique and not basing it off a generic template.
6. Use Only Industry-Specific Reference Cases
They cherry-pick the reference cases listed to keep them industry-specific: “I’ve seen in the past where some agencies are dumping everything that they’ve done in one deck, it becomes cumbersome, and at the end of the day the client doesn’t really care because it has nothing to do with them right now.”
7. If You Don’t Have Enough Reference Cases You Can Always Invent Them
In the beginning they didn’t have much work to show: “We’ve even gone to those extents where we actually create a whole new brand just to put it in our proposal to show that this is what we could do for this type of industry.”
The solution was simple: “Let’s brainstorm and come up with a brand and put it in our deck and show this is what we could do. And if they ever ask if that’s a brand we can all say ‘it was a brand for our internal use, we were thinking of starting a company a fashion line!’”
8. Make It Concrete by Showing Real Examples (With the Client’s Permission of Course)
Singh says they sometimes show buyers things they are working on, assuming the client in question agrees. That makes the information in the proposal more concrete and prices seem better motivated: “They’re spending a lot of money with you. So you have to really help them understand why they’re spending that.”
9. Put the Price at the Very Top
“When someone’s getting a proposal they’re really only interested in how much you guys are going to cost and what the timeline is,” Singh says and argues that it makes no sense to put it at the very end.
I was surprised to hear this as in sales we always recommend sellers to establish a sense of value before you tell the price. Singh had an alternative take on it: “If they see the price it’s already registered in their head: ‘Ok. These guys cost this much.’ Then they’re just interested to look at the rest of the work. They start going through everything they’ll see and it they’ll see a deal.”
The idea is that buyers aren’t ignorant about why the price and the timelines are at the end of agency proposals. They’ll scroll there anyway if they want and most of them just do. Singh argues it’s better to be upfront about the price and then justify it. But it only works if you vet the client in advance and make sure they’re in the right ballpark when it comes to the expected price.
10. “We Do Everything in Keynote” Since they’re a web design shop (among other things) I ask if they have built their own tool for this based off a framework like Bootstrap or Foundation. They haven’t. “We keep it old school. We’ll do it either in [Apple] Keynote, [Adobe] InDesign or Illustrator and export as images. We post those images as a slideshow like a vertical gallery that you can scroll through on the web site.”
Addendum (2020-01-22): Since I wrote this article, Azai Studios has changed the way they produce proposals. Harji explained in an email to me:
10. “We Do Everything on Our Own Backend CMS, and Send a Link With a Full Digital Proposal”
“We create beautiful, custom website proposals for our clients. On there, they will see it completely tailored to their company and scope requirements. We have interactive deliverables, where clients can click through and see the full process for each, animations, and auto-playing video content. We also have interactive timelines so they can see how long things take, when they start, and when they’re delivered. The web-proposal is fully responsive so our buyers can access it from anywhere. We also track these pages so we internally can see when they open it, and how they go through it. This data gives us some solid feedback that allows us to keep improving our proposals.”
11. Crafting an Agency Proposal Takes a Day and a Half on Average
“On average I would say we spend about a day and a half on proposals. This is where our team will dig deep to see what the client is all about, We come up with what we want to say in the proposal and we come up with what we want to do for them.”
Sometimes they put in more effort and even pitch new brand concepts: “You want to wow these people off the first get-go. And it’s all about perception when it comes to these proposals. If you can wow them within the first 5 minutes they’re going to be like ‘Oh, OK we’ll consider working with these guys!’”.
12. Send It as a Link So You Can Quickly Fix Any Errors You Discover
Singh tells that one of their most embarrassing agency proposal errors was arithmetic. The numbers in a proposal they’d sent just didn’t add up. Back then, they sent their proposals as PDFs. Once they’d sent the email there was nothing they could do.
These days their agency proposals are links which means they can fix errors: “We are sending this via a link – it’s a digital proposal. So that if there ever is a screw up and we catch it we can quickly fix it.”
He adds: “Always spellcheck and grammar check.”
Conclusion: Pre-Qualify, Wow, and Reinforce
If I were to summarize Harji Singh’s insights, it’d be to pre-qualify the buyer, then wow them and reinforce it by doing consistently great work.
Another way of looking at it is numbers: If given the choice, it’s better to do a few fantastic agency proposals rather than sending out tons of mediocre template-based ones.
Singh left me with some final pieces of advice when it comes to communicating with buyers:
- “When you’re drafting your e-mails and responding to clients your verbiage should be in a way that you’re an industry thought leader. Clients can tell when there’s a newbie emailing them.
- “Your tone in your emails sets the ground for the personality of the company. Never use negative words, always be positive.”
- “Always follow up and stay on top of it.”
Many thanks to Harji Singh who took time out of a busy day to share these valuable insights with us and you, our readers.
About Harji Singh and Azai Studios
Harji Singh’s agency is called Azai Studios. He describes the agency’s value proposition as “We are curiosity-led, goal-focused and inspired by our desire to tell stories and create brands for a wide range of businesses that matter. We do this by solving problems through strategy, design, technology, and content production.”
Check out their website to learn more about them and the services they offer.
All photos courtesy of Harji Singh and Azai Studios.