How to write an advertising proposal

December 11, 2013

By John Foust
Ad LibsTM 

Stewart was telling me about his first days of selling ads for his newspaper. “In looking through the files, I found some proposals that had been turned down by prospects. Even though I was new in the job, it was easy to see why they had been rejected. They looked like condensed versions of the rate card—never more than a half-page.

“I remember one proposal that just listed the number of recommended ads and the costs. There was no mention of goals, creative strategy, or why the prospect should consider advertising in our paper. To make matters worse, it was a printout of an e-mail which didn’t refer to any kind of face-to-face discussion of the proposal.”

“That opened my eyes,” Stewart said, “so I developed my own proposal format. If I owned a business, I figured I’d need to know five things in order to make a decision on where to advertise.” 

Let’s take a look at Stewart’s format:

1. Situation: “This sets the tone,” Stewart said. “It’s important to adapt to each prospect’s need for detail. Some proposals require statistical depth—and some just need brief explanations.

“Sometimes I call this section Market Insights or Overview. This is where I cover the general situation and the marketing challenges I’ve identified in my discussions with the prospect. What is their position in the market? What makes them different? Who is their target audience? Who is the competition and where are they vulnerable?”

2. Objective: “The key is to be specific,” Stewart said. “This is where I make a simple statement of what we want to accomplish. Ideally, the objective is a measurable sales goal, such as increasing widget sales by a certain percent by a specific date. But sometimes it’s a brand oriented goal, such as generating x-number of impressions for y-number of readers within a specified geographic area over a given time period.”

3. Your unique advantage: “When you cover the benefits of advertising in your paper, focus most of your attention on audience,” Stewart said. “What is your coverage area? How many people do you reach? Who can you reach that your competitors can’t? How many of those readers fit the demographic profile of your prospect’s target audience?”

4. Creative strategy: “This is a crucial element in a proposal,” Stewart explained. “How can you differentiate the advertiser from competitors? And what types of offers will make the cash register ring? If it’s appropriate, you may want to include a couple of spec ad ideas.

5. Schedule and cost: Stewart said, it’s smart to present prospects with choices “That leaves the door open for conversation and adjustments,” he said. “In my experience, two initial schedule and cost choices work better than three. Four is way too many. Two is a manageable number that your prospects can understand quickly. Just call them Option one and Option two.

“Usually, the bottom line cost of each option is in line with their budget. The difference is in the schedule—how we get there.” © John Foust 2013. All rights reserved.


John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information

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