When should agencies say 'no'?

The customer is always right, right? Hmm, it would certainly make life easier if clients were always right and their demands were always fair. There are some occasions when agencies have to say ‘no’, but how can they do this without alienating the source of their incomes? Here we discuss when it is appropriate to say ‘no’, and the nicest way to say it.  

Seven reasons for saying ‘no’  

1. If you are asked to do the ‘wrong’ sort of work. Laura Sutherland, chief of PR agency Aura, says: “First off, if you don’t learn to say ‘no’, you can get yourself tied up in situations you don’t want to be in, with clients you don’t want to work with and sometimes, in an ethical dilemma.  

“‘No’ should be used to refuse the wrong type of work, when a client asks you to do something you’re uncomfortable with ethically, and if the client is generally not giving off good vibes.

Our relationships with clients should be built on trust and integrity. Clients should be OK with hearing ‘no’, if it’s the right thing to do.  

“I often say ‘no’ to work which doesn’t suit me, or if I’ve met the prospective client and we don’t gel. I’m in a situation where I can do that though, as I answer to myself and I’ve worked in public relations for over 18 years, so I know when and how to spot a ‘no’ situation!”

2. When the client is not investing in the pitch process. Rikki Weir, board director at PR agency Cirkle, explains: “If briefs are too ambitious for budgets, if prospects don’t have a brief, if they won’t meet to discuss the brief or have a tissue session, if there are too many agencies on the pitch list (12 has been the record!), if they won’t give a steer on budget – then, any of these mean we’re likely to politely decline.

“We did that with 15 last year and 25 the year before, but we do try and guide the prospect to a relevant third party.”

Another advocate of avoiding clients whose pitch requests are unreasonable is Polly Atherton, managing director at PR agency STIR: “Pitches can be a drain on resources, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, otherwise it’s a waste of time and energy, not only yours but the prospective clients too. In its simplest form, if there’s not capacity within the agency, to dedicate the required resources to do the response justice, then it’s better to just say no.

“For the best outcome, the pitch process should be collaborative, a two-way exchange. As an agency you need to make a judgement call and review whether the client is also willing to invest the appropriate time and energy into the proceedings. This will also inform the decision as to whether to move ahead or not and helps to wheedle out the time wasters.”

3. If the chemistry is wrong. Cirkle’s Weir says apart from ethical misfits (Cirkle won’t work for tobacco companies for example), it is important that there is genuine chemistry between the client and the agency: “Authentic new business leads are gold dust and brands that genuinely excite our teams and allow us to get bold work away will always take priority. As an industry, we need to bang the drum harder and louder about our value and prospects paying agencies for their thinking/pitches – it only ever happened once for us in a pitch and of course will never be the norm.

“Better still, the current formulaic pitch model needs to dramatically metamorphose to embrace collaboration and chemistry sessions as the key measures of success as opposed to blind RFPs and ‘the big reveal’. We’ve managed to win two new clients on the back of chemistry meetings alone.

“My view is that even if you miss out on an opportunity, it opens up time and space for a better suited client to fill. I’d much rather work with clients I like, trust and who value me as part of their leadership team, than those who just treat PR as an add-on, or in some cases, treat you like you’re there to clean up their mess. Some clients just aren’t worth it.”

4. Because your agency can’t afford to work for everyone. Gavin Loader, joint managing director at agency Mantis PR, explains how his agency decides which clients to accept, and which to refuse: "First and foremost, our team has a clear desire to work only with B2B tech firms that are serving the public sector, and impacting lives. This year, we're actively targeting tech firms selling to the police services, defence and military, but next year it might be schools and the NHS. But, if there is no clear link between the tech being sold, the public sector, and changes in peoples' lives; we're very likely to say no to striking up a relationship.

“The maturity of the prospective client is also important too; we're interested in working with tech clients with a turnover of between £3m-50m with a proven track recording of making a difference to the public sector. We do have clients operating either side of this – there are some exciting start-ups out there – so maybe it’s more grey, but we're more likely to say no than yes.    

“Similarly, I'd also be wary of clients paying significantly more than our other clients; I like to find balance, so that we don't have all of our eggs in one basket. In fact, I don't want any client contributing more than 15% of our income. As painful as it might be to walk away, I'd say no to a prospect to avoid putting our company's future financial stability at risk."

5. When the client is wrong! Sometimes (just occasionally!), the client might be asking for the impossible, so it is up to the agency to point this out says STIR’s Atherton: “If clients fully appreciate the importance of specialist counsel, they will understand that it’s fundamental to our role to say ‘no’ when required. Our clients trust us to challenge them, where appropriate, based on our expertise and experience – what value can be gained from buying into an agency of ‘Yes Men’?

“This potentially could have financial implications – but these are short term. Reputable PR is a marathon, not a sprint, and acting with integrity will further benefit your reputation, support agency growth and future wins.”

In full agreement with this is Rachel Proctor, client manager at agency Milk & Honey PR: “A consultant's role is to consult, not to blindly agree. They provide an external perspective as well as thought-provoking and intelligent advice to clients.”

6. When the work is outside of your skill set. Proctor says that you have to be honest when you can’t do justice to the brief: “We must also recognise when work falls outside our skill set. Hiring based on skills means that we have a really diverse team and often have capabilities in-house. But it is important to say no to work where we can’t add value. There is often scope here to partner with or recommend other agencies doing amazing work in their space. We are then the gatekeepers, ensuring that the messaging is both compelling and consistent across all mediums.”   

7. Because you’re worth it! Rachel Bradley, founder of agency Gossip Girl PR, has learnt to only accept work that she loves: “I was told that turning down work was lazy. I mean, who is their right mind would say no to a paying client? It comes from my parents who worked for themselves. Do the work. Get paid. Job done. When I started out I’d take every job that came my way. Being busy meant I was successful! I don’t regret it but now I’m much more picky. Not because I can afford to be, but I feel it’s liberating to pass on a job. I now have set rates and I stick to them with no exceptions. No one wants to end up resenting a job because they’ve undercharged for it. And over the years I’ve developed a niche. I love working with small business owners, mainly women (not planned, it just worked out that way) on consumer campaigns. So now that’s where I pitch myself. I know loads of PROs who work on other things so if it’s not right for me I pass it on. But more than anything, my number one rule is ‘if it don’t feel right, say no’. If my gut tells me to avoid, I do. Once bitten and all that.”

The best three ways to say ‘no’  

1. Ask the client to make a choice. Shalon Roth, co-author of How to Succeed in a PR Agency: Real Talk To Grow Your Career & Become Indispensable and founder of comms collective PR-it says: “The key is prioritisation. Ask the client to decide the most important deliverable – ‘if you squeeze in something new, then X project will need to be delayed, is that okay?’ The client will generally say, ‘yes’.  

“If the client says ‘no’, then explain you will deliver and how the quality will be impacted by the rush. Show you’re willing to help, but that a sudden urgent request will have an impact.”  

2. Be as polite as possible. When it has to be said, let the client down gently advises Roth: “If clients beg you for something unreasonable, and you give in, and then deliver to a high standard, they will always think you can pull a rabbit out of the hat. They will not, however, appreciate how many favours you had to call or how much stress you had to endure to make it happen. It will simply be the new expectation, which you do not want to set.

  “To that end, it’s critical to politely decline projects that would be impossible to deliver to protect the relationship. Sure, you may forgo a bit of money now, but it’s worth it to maintain your relationship for the long-haul.”  

3. Provide wise counsel. Andy Murphy, head of digital at agency Performance Comms, says: “Saying yes is easy. Going with the flow is easy. Some would say lazy. Parents know that it’s easy to let children get away with whatever they like. Don’t like your veg? Sure that’s okay, you can leave it. But that’s not the recipe for the best result in the long term.

“Our role as trusted partners for our clients is to provide counsel. To provide a wider view when our clients can’t see the wood for the trees. It might seem the right decision to a client but we need to offer perspective, to see the bigger implications and plan for the best outcome in the medium to long term. 

“That ability to push back on what a client wants takes skill. Knowing how and when to say no is an art rather than a science. Knowing when you’re wrong is also important. You have one view of the world, your client has another. They see the internal pressures. You see the external. A good agency/client relationship isn’t built on the ability to say yes or no, it’s built on the ability to work together to find the best maybe.”

No one likes to be rejected, and it is also awful to be the one doing the rejecting. But sometimes, the kindest word, for everyone involved, is a simple ‘no’.