by Michelle Cavé (@brandfundi) Should PRs hold onto our trade secrets until it’s paid for, or should we accept that providing strategic proposals is the cost of doing business?

I’ve found myself in a catch-22 situation of late. As the founder of a boutique PR agency, I manage and implement all activities of the business, and have truly come to understand the concept of “time is money” over the past three years. This has been acutely emphasised when dealing with too many prospect clients who want meeting after meeting, followed by a PR proposal, sometimes even committing to formalising the PR partnership, before taking the strategic roadmap — which could quite easily be implemented in-house, or by a cheaper or preferred competitor — and literally avoiding all future contact via phone or email.

Should or shouldn’t include

As a new agency trying to secure a sustainable future, I’ve found it difficult to define what I should shouldn’t include in my proposals — especially when, more often than not, budgets aren’t even disclosed upfront. My dilemma is that, the less detail I provide in a proposal, the more the client might end up thinking that I don’t really know the job. In contrast, the more information I provide, the greater I’m at risk of giving away my 20+ years of knowledge and ideas for free.

But, in order to afford myself a better chance of being awarded the business, I’ve invested many hours researching, liaising with suppliers and/or relevant media and preparing detailed proposals with a strategic approach and supporting tactics. Basically, giving away my intellectual property in the hopes that the prospect would see the value and appoint me.

Following a string of proposals submitted to no avail, I sought out some advice from a mentor who is a respected key player in the telecoms sector. She shared that, in her space, it’s common practice to develop a ‘memorandum of understanding’ for prospects that outlines a fee for proposal development. This fee is either ‘absorbed’ if the supplier is awarded the business, or billed for if the prospect rejects the proposal and/or goes with a competitor.


This is a good idea; if only it were supported by local PR practitioners so as to establish a benchmark for doing business.

The advertising world has long solved this issue by insisting on a pitch-rejection fee, which is upheld by the ACA (Association for Communication and Advertising). That said, the smaller agencies don’t like this much because it limits the number of proposals a client will look at, making it more difficult to break in.

So, I posed the question to a global PR industry group on LinkedIn, and was astonished by the overwhelming responses from professionals across the US, UK, Australia and Africa. The majority of respondents confirmed that this is a contentious issue, as many have been burnt; in some cases, PRs have seen their ideas brought to life without being appointed or remunerated, and there is little one can do to fight this after the fact. The overall consensus is that prospects should pay for the intellectual property and the creative ideas that go into developing strategic proposals.

One respondent shared, “…creativity is coming up with ideas that others haven’t thought of. So why offer free help to others who are stuck thinking through their problems, challenges or opportunities?”

Proposal isn’t a plan

Furthermore, the collective point of view from the group is that a proposal shouldn’t be a plan. Ultimately, PR practitioners need only include information about themselves, their company, relevant case studies, campaign objectives, scope of work, costs and terms of service. “Prospects should have an idea of why you’re the right choice for them and that you understand their communication challenges and opportunities. However should they want more detail, they will need to pay a project fee for the plan. Proposals tell them who, what and why, but not how. Once you go into the ‘how’ there should be a fee. I don’t even do free consults anymore because everything costs!” added another respondent.

It was also shared that “it comes down to this: Serious clients who want to work with you will do so based on your reputation and specific capabilities for the project.”

What I’ve taken away from this debate is that I believe trade secrets are valuable and PRs should be paid for the blood, sweat and time that goes into solving specific brand challenges. Great ideas build brands and brands build businesses — that’s worth something, right?


Michelle CavéMichelle Cavé (@brandfundi) is founder of Brandfundi, a PR and marketing communications agency. She began her PR and marketing career in 1999, and has undertaken multiple B2B and B2C briefs across various industries and categories. Career experience spans across sectors including FMCG, fashion, health and beauty, media and marketing, manufacturing, retail, ICT, banking, corporate social investment, and fintech (cryptocurrency/ICOs).

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

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