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By:  AdAge

Last month at our 10th annual Small Agency Conference & Awards, one idea resonated both onstage and off: the value of saying no, a theme that not only wove its way through the conference but had relevance for a wide variety of shops. Here’s what members of the Amp community had to say about the value of saying no and an example of how saying no ultimately turned into a big win.

Eric Fowles, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Voltage

In my experience, if you’re not saying no, it’s hard to charge a premium. On the flip side, being in a position where you can pick or choose is a good indicator that you have a sought-after service and allows you to charge that premium price.

One client had a company culture that was not in line with ours. Their CEO pit people against each other, and never gained alignment with his leadership team. I figured it wouldn’t infect our culture, but it did and I ended up losing a few good employees. 

Sean Gaffney, Chief Strategy Officer, Preacher

Saying no keeps us laser-focused on doing right by those who've already taken the leap of faith with us. Instead of spending money on pitches, we invest in the Preacher brand, our gallery and our people.

Sometimes we really believe in an opportunity that comes our way, but we don't have the bandwidth to take it on. Rather than squeeze it in and stretch too thin, we tell the truth and often it works out for us.

Amir Haque, Partner, Growth, The Many

Leadership doesn’t necessarily feel it when a new client comes on that maybe isn’t the best fit, but saying no shows our team that we give a damn about their experience showing up to work every day. You can poison your culture by saying yes to the wrong things.

At one point we took a look at our long-term growth goals and made the decision to say no to pitches so we could invest in our existing clients. It supported what we wanted to achieve as an agency in terms of relationships, the kind of work we want to do, and spiked our growth.

Aaron Harvey, Co-Founder, Ready Set Rocket

As an entrepreneur, you’re acutely aware that any opportunity to form a new relationship can lead to meaningful work and growth. When you evaluate potential opportunities, you must anchor your decisions to your values. 

Many years ago, we turned down an opportunity to explore an RFP with the NRA. We really needed the work, but the organization did not align with our values. It's critical that agencies seek to service organizations that make a net positive impact on the world and find that balance between raw capitalism and social enterprise.

Todd Hunter, Co-CCO, Observatory

Saying no to opportunities that aren’t a cultural fit is a powerful investment in agency culture. ”No” puts your team, agency and differentiation first. It’s an act of true client service driven by culture, and it means that “yes” can regain its value. 

In our first year, we turned down two pitches: a national QSR and a global automotive brand. The QSR pitch was an invitation we appreciated, but left little room for innovation. As for the automotive pitch, the terms were egregious. Months later, we won a global automotive pitch that was aligned with our mission, values and business, and when the right restaurant came, we were ready.

Joel Johnson, Co-Founder and Chief Strategist, Admirable Devil

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on ad agencies now to lend our clients a lot of time and money and creativity, and to deliver impactful work that drives ROI. It’s difficult to say no, but it’s important. If the work imperils the business, you’re not doing right by your partners or your staff.

The name of our agency is Admirable Devil. A Catholic charity reached out to do some work with us, and I said, “Hey, do you know what our name is?” So, it didn’t work out. In that case, it was kind of mutual.

Celia Jones, CEO, The Escape Pod

As a small agency, it’s difficult to turn down anything that comes through the door, especially if you’re hungering for well-known brands to add to your roster. But you have to employ rigor in understanding the type of clients that fit with the type of work you do.

In about 80 percent of our pitches, the RFP says, “Our business is facing massive headwinds. The status quo is broken. We need breakthrough creative to drive growth.” A lot of clients say they want that, but the reality is their comfort level with pushing boundaries might be a lot less.

Ryan Kutscher, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Circus Maximus

We focus our attention and resources on the opportunities that motivate us and play to our strengths. We had a year where we said yes to just about every opportunity, and as a result, our efforts were weak, we were stressed, and our win percentage was low. 

Sometimes you say no to certain conditions. No, we won't do x, y and z. But we will do a, b and c because we've found that process highlights how we can best serve your business. It's about setting the economics of a relationship.

Leeann Leahy, CEO, The VIA Agency

When used properly, saying no helps stop irresponsible growth that can upset agency culture. It also stops bad agency-client marriages. Ultimately, no is a crucial arrow in the quiver of any agency that desires sustainable growth.

We were recently invited into an RFI that, on paper, seemed great. But then they asked, “Can we be their one partner for global consolidation and ensure we do it seamlessly?” The truth was it wouldn't be seamless. We would be hiring a good number of new people fast, which is always a potential culture shock. We answered honestly and said no.

John Limotte, CEO and Executive Creative Director, Mustache (part of Cognizant Interactive)

It’s taken me a while to learn this lesson, but when you take a step back and think about the costs of a bad job, the math becomes clear. Five or six big wins, out of hundreds of jobs, accounts for the majority of our growth. Those big wins won't happen if you’re running at 110 percent capacity all of the time.

As your agency grows, you’ll get to a point where you’ll need to set a minimum fee threshold for your services. When you accept work for just about any amount, you’ll be spreading your agency thin, hurting both you and the client in the long run.

Kaitlin Maud, Founder and CEO, Current Forward

We are a four-person consultancy, so it is crucial that we put our energy toward projects that will be the best mutual fit. Saying no says, “I care enough about your success to know we aren’t the ones who are going to get you there.” 

We got contacted a couple of months ago about an opportunity with an extremely visible woman-owned brand in Austin. It was a great fit, but they wanted at least one member of our team embedded with them at a client site for the duration of the three- to four-month engagement. Being separated for that long would have left us like a table with only three legs.

Rob Meyers, Partner and Executive Producer, Versus

If we can’t put our spin on something, there’s no point in doing a job. Saying no, in a certain sense, is also about perception. For people who take on everything, the reputation gets around that you’re more of a bottom line company than a creative partner.

Easy cases to point to are where somebody was looking for caviar on a ramen budget. We’ve also come up against projects where we realized they wanted to execute in a way we did not want to do business. Recently, we were brought into a job and told we would be pitching to get into a pitch scenario. To be that far removed from the end decision is not something we want to put ourselves in the midst of.

Jo McKinney, CEO, Burns Group

Often what you don’t do is as defining to your brand as what you do do. It allows you to live up to the promises you’ve made within the organization and externally to the world.

This year, we said no to pitch for a company in the tobacco category. Working on something counter to our values felt wrong. A harder no was another large account that would have had a massive impact on our profitability but forced us to expand in a way not aligned with our near-term plans. It’s important to have a game plan for growth and make sure you’re saying yes to things that help you reach your North Star—not to things that scale you in a way you hadn’t planned for.

Gina Michnowicz, CEO and Executive Creative Director, The Craftsman Agency

The value in saying no ends up being in the work product. Ultimately, for the client, it ends up being a better result. Also, it’s important that we focus more on emerging technology and emerging platforms, versus staying in legacy types of things.

We just rebranded and shifted the vision and mission of the company dramatically. We walked away from a fairly large book of business and opened up room for more creative space, better client service and a happier team.

Jason Mitchell, CEO, Movement Strategy

We have gotten ourselves into situations where we say yes to a new client knowing it may not be the best long-term fit for our agency. Those clients sap up resources that would otherwise be spent growing relationships where there is more opportunity. 

Existing clients often want us to keep working with them within the historical budget, which no longer makes sense for us. In situations where we can't renew within the terms of the previous scope, it can be difficult, but it allows us to break free of prior constraints and grow.

Kenny Nguyen, CEO and Co-Founder, ThreeSixtyEight

I hate it when people ask clients, “How do I win your business?” The best question to ask is, “How do I win your trust?” I think we live in a trust economy today because there’s not enough of it. 

We just turned down this awesome fintech company. It was twice the budget we normally see, but we couldn’t do it. We doubled in size this year, so my job is literally "chief no officer." Good agencies say no because they want to build trust but also build a sense of culture. Culture doesn’t mean anything until it costs you money.

Greg Nickerson, Chairman, Bader Rutter

Bringing on a new client that is not the right fit will ultimately create distractions and pull resources away from the existing client base. Staying focused on your current client base signals that you have principles and aren’t desperate for new business.

We had a situation where we declined to participate in an agency review process and were upfront about why we didn’t think it would be a good fit. Eighteen months later, that same prospect came back to us stating how they appreciated our candor and ultimately hired us under different circumstances.

Steve Parker Jr., CEO and Co-Founder, Levelwing

There are times when a brand may be a great look for the roster, but the experience, revenue or time required doesn’t match the needs of the agency. Saying yes will take away from the focus of the team and ultimately harm the business.

In 2014, we completely rebuilt Levelwing and jettisoned six to eight services that didn’t align with our goals. We also had to unwind a few client relationships. Putting more time and focus into the things we wanted to achieve led to more growth in the long run.

Goran Paunovic, Principal and Creative Director, ArtVersion

Companies are going through all sorts of evolutions in terms of understanding the scope of projects. If clients know the budget is not in compliance with the amount of work on the table, no would be your best answer.

Ninety percent of our work is innovation, and there are a lot of hours that need to be put in. Otherwise, you’re just doing the same old, and there is no progress.

Mike Ridley, Global Director of Business Development and Marketing, The Community

The right no will get you further than the wrong yes. If the feeling is that the company is not aligned with our expectations, we say no. It shows our people that we value the culture and won’t work with brands who might disrupt the harmony of the agency.

There was a client who sent us an RFP the Friday before Memorial Day, with a request for in-person presentations on Tuesday—a 72-hour turnaround over one of the biggest holiday weekends in the U.S. We passed and, in that no, demonstrated to our people that we would not work with a company who did not value them the same way we did.

Josh Rosenberg, Co-Founder and CEO, Day One Agency

For us, it’s about two words: ruthless prioritization. Before we agree to participate in an RFP, we ask the team, if we had to work late one night or on a weekend to get this done, would they be excited to do so? If the answer is yes, we proceed. That filter has really helped us prioritize new business. 

There was a pitch where we made it into the second round and they were getting ready to hire us, but there was still a large degree of back and forth. We ended up having to pull out because it was creeping up on a project we had already committed to.

Issa Sawabini, Partner, Fuse

While it can be extremely hard to turn down work, sometimes it’s the right thing to do. We don’t want to overload our staff, and also want to avoid racing to hire new people, which can mean you’ll potentially hire someone available versus someone right for the agency.   

Each year we turn down campus marketing work for brands that call us too late in the planning cycle. We explain that rushing to hit the back-to-school window won’t make sense, and we are often successful working with them to plan future activations later in the school year.


Rob Siltanen, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Siltanen & Partners

The pitch process is deeply flawed, so we typically say no to it and try to find clients who are open to more constructive ways of working. We’ve been around for 20 years because we say yes all the time to our existing clients and not an awful lot to potential clients and projects that don’t smell right.

We pitched an automotive account two years ago, and they paid us nothing, while it cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard costs and hours. They went with another agency, but wanted to buy our campaign for a low-ball price. It was a chance to get some of our money back, but we said no out of principal.

Daniel Stone, Co-Founder and Business Development Lead, and George Ellis, Co-Founder and Creative Director, Bandolier Media

Stone: If we meet with a client and the chemistry is not there, we have to say no. Our unofficial motto is that we want to be around people that have a positive mindset attitude. It’s all about going after clients who see the world the same way as you. Ellis: A golf brand wanted us to handle their social and liked the work we did, but it became more about the number of posts as opposed to ideas. While financially it would have made a lot of sense, it didn’t make sense creatively because they were asking about quantity and we were talking about quality.

John Trahar, Co-Founder and CEO, Greatest Common Factory 

Our tagline is “Make things better,” and if we feel like what the client is trying to do, either in business or with the messaging, isn’t trying to make things better for their customers or ideally in the world, that’s reason to disqualify them.

We had a recent occasion where there was an element of what the brand did in the realm of predatory lending. That didn’t seem like anything we wanted to be involved in. We very much believe in not having a short-term financial gain derail us in the long-term or be antithetical to who we say we are.

Carolyn Walker, CEO and Managing Partner, Response Agency

We have said no more than we ever have in the last 18 to 24 months. We have more concretely defined who we are and that has allowed us to say, “That doesn’t align with who we’re trying to be, so we’re not taking it.” 

One client in the financial services industry asked us to reduce our price on something, and we said no. It was empowering because we knew it was going to take what we had outlined to get the job done right. What’s important is that we spend our time doing great work for clients or prospects that are going to be meaningful to the business.

Jordan Warren, Co-Founder and CEO, TBD 

Small agencies need to be smart about how they allocate and are compensated for their precious bandwidth. Saying no to clients who expect senior talent on their business at a discounted rate is a good way to reinforce the value that having senior talent on their business will bring.

Being based in San Francisco, we’ve also been approached by start-ups who say they want a campaign like Nike’s “Dream Crazy” but have next to nothing budgeted for production. We pride ourselves on stretching budgets and finding ways to help clients punch above their weight, but have to say no when the client is expecting a Ferrari on bicycle budget.

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