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How To Reframe the RFP & Charge For Your Creative Expertise

Are you expending tons of time and energy on RFPs that don't go anywhere? How to break the cycle of frustration and charge for your creative expertise.

Often clients don’t know what they want but they want to know how much it will cost.

We’ve all had that sinking feeling when meeting with a prospective client. The work is interesting and right in your sweet spot. But they don’t know exactly what they want or even what the deliverables should be. After a few minutes, you realize that just getting a decent proposal together is going to take a serious investment of time to unravel their needs.

Our company’s search for a better way to respond to RFPs (aka Requests For Proposal) began after a long and arduous bidding process around building a community-based website. We invested 3-4 days of our time conducting meetings, white-boarding ideas, and writing up our recommendations. We pushed the client into an awkward discussion around budget. But, at the end, we delivered a proposal with a rock-solid roadmap for executing the project.

What happened next changed how we pitch and has made all the difference in our business.

Instead of hiring us, the prospective client simply passed around our ideas and deliverables to every other vendor for competing bids. Those vendors, in turn, said, “You bet we can do that – and for less.” We didn’t get compensated for our time or our work, but our ideas were implemented.

Lesson learned?

Prospective clients in the creative fields frequently use the RFP process – albeit unintentionally – as a cost-effective way to get brainstorming, mock-ups, and prototypes for free.

So what now?

When the next potential project came along, I had that same sinking feeling halfway through our first meeting. I knew we had a ton of unraveling to do before we could define the deliverables and scope of work. But this go around we were not going to do the client education for free. With a bit of apprehension, I launched into a nervous pitch about why our company doesn’t do RFPs and proposed a new “discovery” option.

Why the “Discovery Option” Works

Not just anybody can walk in and know the pitfalls and what it takes for success in a creative endeavor, right? You have valuable creative and project management skills with insights that were hard-earned. By charging for a “discovery process,” you tie monetary value to those skills and set a good precedent for the client relationship. But it’s not just a good deal for you…

Frequently, prospective clients don’t know exactly what they need or why they need it. Your experience in guiding clients at the outset of a project presents tremendous value because you can save them time and money by avoiding mistakes in focus, deliverables, and most importantly expectations. You, in turn, help make the prospective client look great to their management by helping them be more savvy and better attuned to current trends and opportunities.

The next time you’re faced with a murky RFP, consider countering with a “discovery option” at a fixed price that’s fair for both parties. Here are three simple tips we’ve used to make this approach successful.

1. Clearly outline what deliverables the client will get at the end of the process and make sure they represent real value.

Remember, further education and a brief write-up based on research or brainstorms with specific recommendations qualifies as real value. For example, we offer a PDF with a bullet list of technical and creative specifications needed to build out and manage an online presence based on the client’s target market. Whether they use us or not, they are now smarter on the process, technology, timelines, language, and pitfalls of building a digital experience.

2. Eliminate risk by ensuring the client there is no further obligation at the end of the discovery process.

Frame it as an easy way for you both to see if the relationship is a good fit. For big ticket projects the prospective client often feels much better dipping their toe in the water this way. Bonus: the smaller price point often means the liaison can get approval much easier, especially given the value proposition of specific deliverables and custom education.

3. Inject a bit of creativity to help them innovate.

Dig in and come up with some interesting ideas and examples that have real potential for them. Pull together data that helps back up your recommendations or gives great insights. This shows you are a pro and working hard on their behalf to push the envelope for ideas – which most of your competitors will not do in an RFP process because they can’t afford to waste the time. All of this leads the client to trust you more since you’re working hard to help them innovate.


In the end, the discovery option is a win-win for both parties. You get paid for work you used to give away for free and, as a result, do a better job on the proposals. The prospective client gets a roadmap with tips, ideas, and well-researched recommendations. And, as a bonus, both parties know whether this is a relationship that they want to pursue in the long-term. Furthermore, if the client doesn’t see value in the discovery option, you know right away that they might not be a good fit and could be a client from hell.

And if you’re wondering, we did land that next project and have since used this approach in all RFP-type situations. Potential clients love it because they get to try out our company’s process with little risk. And we can provide much more accurate quotes because we’ve already done the hard work of sussing out a solid scope of work.

I can tell you first-hand that it’s pretty liberating to finally be able to say that you don’t do creative work for free.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you found good ways to maximize the time you invest in responding to RFPs?

More Posts by Jake Cook

Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.

Comments (24)
  • Matthew

    GREAT tip!! Implementing today ; )


    Great article!

  • James

    Thanks so much for this! I’m no designer, but I feel like I could do something similar with this related to my “coaching”.

    Genius idea by the way.

  • Nicole Brors

    I have definitely had this happen! This is a great idea.

  • LorettaMay Design

    This is an amazing idea. How did you figure out what to charge for this “discovery option”.

  • Nadene Canning

    Great insight, so true! Will implement immediately, so often jumping into a “fixer” solutions is close to impossible when too little time has been spend upstream defining the issues and questions. Thank You for sharing

  • Bon Vivant

    I empathise w ur gumption, but, ur article is obviously written from the dust of a few rejections and bad experiences. Indeed, I feel this may be bad advise for more conservative (apprehensive? insecure?) agency or consultant. U could easily end up pitching and fearing rejection = certain failure. Companies like McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group have been charging for pitches for some time. Perhaps the better approach is to simply be forthright and approach the prospect in the same way?

  • Brooke Browne

    I have the same question. I know they can’t tell us how much they charge, but curious about how you came to your number.

  • RK

    I’ve done this on my last few projects. I simply say that in order to provide an accurate quote I’ll need to initially charge them my hourly rate to write up a report based on their projected needs. That project management type report contains stuff like cost estimates, what if calculations, etc, and if they want to go elsewhere afterwards they may. (Pleased to say they stayed).

    It’s also a good way of establishing potential exit strategies for both parties, which was handy when a bigger contract came along and I could easily pass client #1 to a colleague / competitor.

  • Jake Cook

    Hi Brooke and LorettaMay – thanks for taking the time to comment and to answer your question around coming up with a cost – we usually look at a rough ballpark for how many hours it will take for us to create the deliverables after doing our homework (phone calls, write-ups, research, user interviews, reviewing site analytics, etc).
    The other option is if you know the client’s total budget for that project, you can propose a certain percentage of this goes to “discovery”. Depending on the size of the project, anything less than 5% usually gets approved pretty easily based on our experience – but only if your deliverables represent real-value that they can carry forward.
    Hope this helps!

  • Jack Pierce

    Your experience does’t quite match ours, Jake. We run a very creative digital learning company, and for most of our RFPs, the client is pretty clear on what they want. Only once have we had the experience of schooling the client in an RFP and then not getting the bid. That was for the portal that houses our elearning courses.

    Now, I have another one of those coming up and my plan is to tell the client how strategically our work will be integrated into their marketing and learning initiatives and that coming up with the plan will be $X and the ongoing management will be $X per quarter. If I get the nod, we’ll begin. If not, they have a digital marketing agency, but they have already thrown up their hands and said “we don’t know anything about learning.” So I think we’re good on that one.

    Otherwise, I will share this bit of business process. We frequently get an RFP or SOW with a budget attached and not much scope. I may give some very high-level ideas so that they can see we “get it” but I make it clear that as a REAL scope develops, the cost will change. If they have a “fixed” budget then I tell them we can design to that budget in the Design Document. That usually means that they will increase the scope, later. We also have a hard and fast rule about raising the flag when something goes out of scope according to what’s in the Design Document. And as long as we’ve spelled these things out ahead of time, we don’t get burned.

    Thanks for your article!

  • Ryan Bollenbach

    Hi Jake,

    Great article, I definitely agree with you. I recently did a UX review for a client which in some ways is similar to an RFP and luckily I worked at an hourly rate.

    As a UX designer, doing a review and making suggestions is a huge part of the creative process. As you mentioned, suggestions can be very actionable like an RFP and I could see how it’d be possible to experience similar problems.

    Keep up the great writing,


    Please check out: for my thoughts on design.

  • Jake Cook

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and detailed response. I think your comment underscores the power of powerful positioning and your tip in paragraph 3 is dead on. Killing scope creep as soon as it rears its head is so important.

    Offering digital marketing services can span quite a few initiatives and usually involves some pretty geeky technology that the decision-maker has to be comfortable with. This is one technique that’s helped us recoup some of that billable time and helps us earn a potential customer’s trust.

    Maybe not a useful approach for every creative out there but hopefully it helps a few others to be compensated for what they used to do for free.

    Thanks again for contributing!

  • Todd Anderson

    Great article Jake!

  • Shyam

    Well, not all situations are similar but I can clearly identify with you. One place where it does not work is in government. In most cases in government, people who select the vendor have no authority to deviate from a pre-decided path

  • Jake Cook

    Thanks Todd!

  • Tim Karlberg

    I especially agree with #3 (Inject a bit of creativity to help them innovate). I try to do the same when selling my work early on in the process. In the discussions leading up to the final pitch, I enjoy seeing our prospective clients get excited about a new idea I recommended that they’d never thought of, or heard before. And when roadmapping a new project, that little bit of teased creativity helps prove they’re talking to the right people. Thanks for writing this.

  • Vera

    We have been burned in a similar way. Now, we have a discussion with prospective clients about what they want/need. If they would like us to prepare a plan, we charge for it. Once we deliver the plan, they are free to try and implement the plan themselves or take it to another outfit. If they choose to have us implement the plan, we credit the bulk of the fee toward their contract fee or retainer. So far, so good…

  • Teresa Maslonka

    Thanks for the idea of a credit on the contract.

    We always suggest the discovery method when requirements are unclear; we stress that any vendor can bid on the deliverable in the end. But more often than not, we get push back from the client; they don’t see the value in paying for this level of work (even as they aren’t willing to do their homework.) The idea of a credit may break the stalemate and provide incentive for allowing the discovery team to also develop.

  • luigi

    Great article.

    In Italy, where my digital agency works, customers haven’t idea of what to do, what budget they want to spend and what are their needs. They usually say ” i want a website, give me a quote”. So, we thought a lot of times to make a discovery approach contract to start analyzing needs, ideas, market and so on but we don’t started yet because we aren’t sure our customers will pay for that. But your article forced me to take a decision and we are creating a discovery approach for new and actual customers.

    Thank you very much

  • punk28r

    >>2. Eliminate risk by *ensuring* the client ** there is no further obligation

    [snip] assure the client that [snip]

  • dlc

    I’m reading through Jake’s article and the comments on New Year’s Day 2013 after seeing @ActionMethod link … good stuff. I run a small consulting gig in the not-for-profit world, specifically leadership transitions and executive searches. I find especially the smaller NFPs simply have no idea how, where or who to ask for help, or how much it will *drain* their limited resources. So modifying the Discovery Option somewhat, but approaching it the same way has very real potential. My sense, seeing Jack’s reply, is that experienced clients ( usually the larger ones? ) can come at this with clarity, it is the small inexperienced groups that show up looking for help, and this could be a healthy way to do so.


  • Fernando Rodriguez

    Excellent article! I’am so glad that I will not give my creative time for free anymore.

  • Happy Collaboration

    Indeed, its not only about price! Connect with companies in a project-based community that are looking for meaningful business relationships.

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