A Young Person’s Game?

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The coffee break at the last APMP UK conference gave me a jolt. I happened to look up across the room of chattering bidders and it suddenly struck me: “I’m one of the old folks.”

I built my first proposal centre – aged 31 – back in 1999. At that point, it was the largest team of its type in the UK outside the defence sector. I became the first CEO of APMP UK in 2001. Proposals were a young person’s game.

Sure, bid teams existed back then. Their goal: to make life easy for their sales colleagues. Plug the documents together, organise the meetings, get things signed off. And then the salesperson would bring it all to life with their natural charisma (?) when they got into the room to present. But it was all very grey, very dull.

It was easy to shine as a consultant in those days. Huge insurance company with no structured approach to proposal development? We can fix that. Major telecoms company setting up its global sales team?  Sure, we can create the proposal processes to help you win your biggest deals. IT company struggling to win work? Just look at those proposals you’re sending out: is it any wonder? Hey, let us loose…

Technology? Is that an iPhone in your pocket? No, because they hadn’t been invented yet. Virtual teams? If we were lucky, we could set up a conference call. And there were two bitter rivals in the pre-written content world. They hated one another. Spent every opportunity at loggerheads. And then they merged…

Design? Are you still using a typewriter? Because it looks as if you are.

The proposal world wasn’t exactly a greenfield site. There were good people trying their best, against the odds, to do the right thing and to raise the profile of the profession. (“’Profession’? Ha, it’s not a ‘profession’: it’s just glorified admin.”)

And then we fast forward two decades, to the present day. What’s changed?

These days, you’re the exception if you don’t have a team of proposal professionals in your organisation. The C-suite have heard of us; in some cases, they’re passionate sponsors for what we do.

You can have a career as a bid/proposal professional, with training, career paths and qualifications. The apprenticeship scheme (one of the things I’m most proud of establishing for our profession) is bringing brilliant younger people into our world. APMP certification is a pre-requisite, not an optional extra, for those wanting to mark themselves out as serious about a career doing what we do.

Information? Technology? We’re awash. Some content libraries even contain good stuff – rather than helping their teams to write poor proposals faster.

Writing? As good as you’ll read in any published book. Design? We used to look aghast at marketing brochures. Now, marketing teams can’t believe we produce remarkable, bespoke documents to the highest standards you’ll see – at proposal speed. With multimedia, naturally.

Process steps that seemed revolutionary – capture, proposal strategy, storyboarding – are now the norm. The most enlightened, successful teams are seeking out new ways of gaining advantage. (How are you at managing bid competitive intelligence? Yeah, thought so. Watch that discipline explode…)

And if you’re not producing first-class proposals, you’re falling behind your competitors. Buyers used to be thankful for something complete and compliant. These days, they need far more: as one commented in our recent survey, “The Buyers’ Guide to Bidding”, “A good proposal should be personal, thoughtful and creative. It should reflect your relationship and what makes it unique.”

Of course we still face challenges. While organisations have realised the value that we can all bring, it’s still an uphill struggle for many. Their companies ‘get it’ but don’t yet fully ‘do it’. Not every proposal is first-class. Too many bid people can only get their job done against the odds, working late and over their weekends. We’re still on a journey. But it’s not a journey into the unknown: there’s a clear, well-trodden path to learn from – and so many people (your peers, mentors or external consultants like SP) to guide you on the way.

And we’re on the cusp of a revolution: the age of AInnocence is upon us. Lots of talk. A degree of paranoia. And unbelievable opportunities around the corner to harness the power of AI to enhance – not replace – what we do, all the time mindful that procurement people are exploring the same tech from their side and are flagging concerns. Our recent survey showed 56% of buyers are “worried that it’ll be harder to differentiate between bidders if they start using AI to write their proposals.” The way they deploy AI will inevitably drive the way we respond.

But here’s my hope: that in 2023, proposals are still a young person’s game (with those of us who are more seasoned having lots to share). I heard a great phrase the other day: “They don’t have grey hair: they have experience highlights”. I’m relishing learning from those earlier in their careers more than anything right now. They’re the people who’ll shape our future. They’re the “old folks” of the 2050s. My plea to them: speak up and speak out. We need to hear your voices.

This article was written by Jon Williams.

Jon and his team work with clients worldwide to help them establish winning proposal capabilities and to capture major deals. He has built and led numerous bid and proposal centres; managed, reviewed and benchmarked countless proposals; worked in over 35 countries; and trained many thousands of course participants.

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