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LONDON - A mate of mine runs a well-known ad agency. She’s currently neck-deep in a nightmare pitch. It’s a big prize, but there are repeat briefings, ever more panicked deadlines, and no agencies have been culled after each round. It’s your classic hospital pass.
So should she keep going - after all, they’ve come this far - or should she pull out and say enough is enough; the wellbeing of her team and the quality of the outcome are not being well-served? For what it’s worth, I suggested she do the latter but go further - offer the client a choice: explain why their process is doomed, then say either you’ll bail now or they start working solely with you, paying a representative fee only if, at the end of a short discovery phase, they choose to continue with your agency. If they don’t like where you get to - or you see their dysfunction is terminal - then
you part as friends. They’ve spent nothing and can continue with their pitch. And you’ve only lost a fraction of what you would’ve spent on their fruitless beauty parade.
Whether or not you agree, this kind of late- stage ‘no’ does beg the question - when, how and why should you say no to clients?
Let’s start with the obvious - what’s your ‘easy’ no? At the very least, many agencies steer clear of problematic sectors. Arms manufacturer? Nope. Tobacco? Pass. Tinpot despot of a fascist regime? Not on your nelly, mate.
Most of you will also push back on brief, budget and process - too vague, too competitive, too arm's length etc. Quite right too.
Winning a bad client costs more than missing out on a good one.
Maybe you use the traditional 'fame, fortune, fun' model to qualify opportunities. In fairness, this allows you to make a case for pretty much anything ('...but I’ve never seen inside a cigar factory!'), but heigh-ho - it's better than nothing. Better still, perhaps you use a bespoke scorecard that reflects your unique, client- centric value proposition. If so, congratulations; this is good basic practice - albeit not as prevalent as you might expect.
Weirdly, all this no-tastic practice usually only happens when a brief arrives - and usually only when it lands on your doorstep via inbound or an intermediary. You should apply the same rigour to homegrown opportunities too. Either way, of course, qualification is super important. But it's only the tip of the 'no' iceberg.
Remember Sheila and Barry from way back when? Turns out they’re getting married. But one look at the invite tells you the wedding’s a committee-thunk horror show waiting to happen. In trying to please everyone, they'll end up pleasing no one - including themselves. You could swerve the whole debacle and just say no. After all, you don’t know them super well.
Or you could say yes, drink through it and hope for the best. But what if you share your concerns with Sheila and Barry? You've endured some iffy weddings and don’t mind offering some pointers.
Their loved-up little eyes well up as your wisdom lands; life-long regrets fading from their future. They even implore you to play an active role in shaping the day.
One minute you were making up the numbers, now you’re being recast as a wedding planner. Older and wiser, naturally, you do the decent thing and agree. After all, an awesome wedding is a win for everyone.
The big day arrives and now you’re seated at the top table, rather than by the toilets (as I say, you knew them from way back when). But your work is far from done.
Both Baz and Sheils have learnt to trust your guidance. Table six looks glum; go tell a joke! No one’s dancing; go bust some moves! Uncle Dave’s parched, grab some Buck’s Fizz! (The drink, not the band.) At the happy couple’s behest, your fingerprints are all over the show.
The DJ’s playing Spencer Davis, mushrooms are off the menu, and that berk you don’t like has inherited your seat by the toilets.
By deftly rejecting a one-off decision at the outset, your know-how has made you indispensable.
Clearly, this laboured metaphor is about nurturing jeopardy. If clients only vaguely want the pleasure of your company, then that's too low a threshold to attend - especially when their invite is far from promising.
But if they truly need your expertise - and are prepared to listen - then that's not just a yes; it's a 'hell, yeah'. The subtle threat of your departure hangs heavy in the client’s mind; a nagging nervousness that your new business spidey senses are trained to spot.
Like a friendly wind in your sails, that feeling is what differentiation enables - when you know how to leverage it.
Back to Sheila and Barry. Relaxed and glowing, they return from their honeymoon (they planned for Luton, you suggested the Maldives). Ready to start their new life - house, kids, maybe even a cat - they turn to you once more.
Rather than a fading face in a dusty wedding album, you're now a trusted confidant. You earned this fulfilling role by being honest and offering good advice that they might not have been ready to hear.
Even if they’d told you to sling it, you’d have sidestepped a grim wedding and the cost of a gift (score!). But instead, your instinct, expertise and desire for them to be happy have paid off for all concerned.
And it doesn’t end there. Once the client says ‘yes’, there’s plenty more to say ‘no’ to.
If existing clients treat you badly - all pulled ranks, bad manners and need-it-by-Mondays - then ask yourself when they learnt that this was acceptable? Agencies love the 'buy now, pay later' logic of winning new clients and making money later.
This 'land and expand' model is deeply flawed. For one, with in-housing, there's less work to be done - and money to recoup - on an ongoing basis. But more to the point, brown-nosing your way through a poorly-run pitch is not the path to partnership. Servility at the start ensures servility throughout, making account growth twice as hard and half as fun.
That’s why speaking truth to power is such an important boundary to set. And there’s also no surer means of demonstrating conviction and establishing trust in a pitch process. After all, 'because you wanted it most' is not the post- win feedback you want. Instead, aim for 'you weren't the cheapest, but...'.
So what happened to my mate and her nightmare pitch? I'd love to tell you that she played the 'no' card as prescribed; that the client loved her honesty, and they all headed off into the sunset, like Sheila and Barry.
Truth is, time will tell. But in all honesty, it doesn't matter. The point is that these decisions are always personal. A good outcome is only defined by you.
Say no graciously, early and often - for the right reasons - then you always win. You protect morale, show leadership and dodge a bullet. Winning a bad client costs more than missing out on a good one.
Even if expecting ‘I do’ means they take your ‘I don’t’ badly, don’t be surprised to find them circling back once they realise you were right. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow - but saying 'no' is often the first step to hearing 'yes'.
Ultimately, all agencies want smart, collaborative, open-minded clients - can you think of a better way to unearth one?
Robin Bonn is the founder of Co:definery - a management consultancy for agencies - and a columnist for Marketing Week.