The importance of no

Published August 29, 2017 by

Categories: The business of marketing

“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes.” — Tony Blair

Be it an RFP for a prospective client or a specific project for a current one, marketing agencies have a tendency to jump at every opportunity. Why? Potential revenue plays a part, of course, the need to pay our employees, keep the lights on, grow. On a less practical level? Those of us in client service are, by nature, helpers. It’s baked into our DNA. So when a challenge materializes, we jump at the chance.

Unfortunately, this reflexive “yes” doesn’t always end so well. The reason? Because the best interests of both parties are at odds with each other.

Which is why LoSasso Integrated Marketing has modified its evaluation process for new business and client work. Where we once chased business with single-minded enthusiasm, we now spend deliberate time contemplating the fit — in our experience it’s all about the fit. This may seem obvious, but it takes discipline to slow down the process enough to ask a simple tough question — If I were this client, would I hire this agency? It is critical to establish that the relationship be mutually beneficial to both parties and many factors come into play. Are we too small to support their business? Are we too big to support their account? Are we well suited to do great work on their behalf? Do our cultures align, our values?

Not surprisingly, since our move away from a more emotional approach to something more qualitative, we find ourselves politely declining more RFP’s than we accept. That is, we’ve taught ourselves to say “no.” We engage the prospect in transparent conversations very early in the process to gauge the fit and if we don’t feel certain, we politely point them in the right direction with a goal of helping them find the right partner.

With our clients, we sometimes find ourselves employing this difficult two letter word to effectively set expectations. Let’s face it — working in a service industry guarantees you’ll have many client bosses. Even within a single company you might have a handful of contacts, all making diverse requests. And while it’s our job (and pleasure) to deliver, the onus is on us to ensure that we align budgets, deliverables and timelines realistically. Clients have needs and pressures that are very real, but when we’re asked for something unrealistic or fraught with risk — “yes” can be a very bad answer even when it is what the client wants to hear.

By having the confidence to say “no,” however, we’ve found the conversation often takes a positive turn, one where the client reconsiders exactly what’s needed versus the project’s original scope. And guess what? More often than not mutually beneficial compromise breaks out, which tends to strengthen the agency-client relationship. And with more realistic goals in place, work can begin with both parties satisfied they’ve successfully navigated some choppy waters and emerged the other side having made a sound business decision.

When an agency says “yes” when they should say “no” they set themselves up to be holding the proverbial bag when things go south. Worse still, it can leave a client in a difficult situation with their boss — and nothing will sour a relationship faster than that.

In the words of Judith Sills Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, “Wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free.”


  • Great and courageous article Mark. I've been following you and David's articles and find them informative and revealing. Keep up the good work. I've found saying "No" has made my life easier and improved relationships in my business as well. For me, saying "No" doesn't occur all that often, but when it is necessary, it usually leads to a more constructive conversation. I wish I'd used it more when I'd accepted a client, with certain reservations, and then had to cancel our agreement. For me it has happened maybe once every 2 years or so, but realizing that this wasn't a good fit from the get go, is always a painful discussion. The freedom to allow yourself to say "No" is a great strategy for all in businesses that serve clients. Thanks for naming it and defining it. Patrick
    by: Patrick Fallon on 2017-08-30 05:03:19
  • "When an agency says “yes” when they should say “no” they set themselves up to be holding the proverbial bag when things go south. " Wow, so powerfully and succinctly stated Mark. I recently was involved with an agency that found itself in that predicament and it created chaos, churn and waste of valuable resources that actually cost them more than it gained. I've found the best client partners to be tough but fair and willing to accept the advice of the experts they hired. And importantly compensate the agency equitably for their partnership. Without those rules of engagement in place, the most responsible approach is to say no. Jill Kahan
    by: Jill Kahan on 2017-09-02 16:25:57

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