MSM: “I said No!” or at least I tried (with a little help from the Beatles)

Lisa Throckmorton

Article Category: #Strategy

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This month’s Middle School Marketing was a discussion on saying “no” to clients. It’s probably not surprising that individuals from professional services firms were the most vocal/passionate contributors to the conversation. It was an interesting time to have the discussion - the start of a new year and on the heels of financially challenging times, which have impacted all of our companies in one way or another.

“Try to see it my way. Do I have to keep on talking ‘til I can’t go on?”

The concept of “no” or maybe more often times, getting a client to say “yes” is complex in the marketing/design arena for myriad reasons. Here were some of the big points of discussion/takeaways:

First off, go enjoy The Beatles.

“Think of what you’re saying. You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s alright”

The language of marketing has many dialects. As marketers and creatives, we need to speak the language of a varied client audience. A client contact that is automatically on the same page is rare, so if we want to be compelling in rationale for certain initiatives or decisions, we need to be well versed in Sales, CEO and CFO. You will get “no” more times than not from contacts that don’t understand what’s in it for them.

“While you see it your way”

Clients may have distinct opinions about what they want that don’t mesh with your sense of what is best.  Those with distinct opinions likely brought you in to execute and may not be that interested in your opinion. You may get more latitude as the relationship progresses (or maybe you never will), but you need to be comfortable that your company’s reputation is associated with the work.

Josh Chambers blogged about and initiated Taco Bell’s “Drive-thru Diet” as a likely example of a creative situation where push back was clearly warranted and in even greater likelihood was not an option for the executives behind this campaign.

“Think of what I’m saying. We can work it out and get it straight, or say goodnight”

On the opposite spectrum, many clients are really looking for our expertise and confidence in counsel and it’s our job to make sure they get it.  “No,” realistically, is rarely an option. What is an option is presenting well thought out validation for why you believe in a certain decision, and then executing it with precision and passion OR doing your best to steer your client down the path of success when you’ve come to a compromise on an alternate idea.

“Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone”

Being a good steward of a client’s money is paramount. Sometimes “no” comes in the form of being very clear about the financial output/reward or being candid about services that the client is just not ready for. Similarly when a decision to end a client relationship is made, it’s critical to respect the money that has already been invested and set the client up for a smooth transition and best opportunity for future success.

“Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friends”

We also discussed the internal politics of business development and client services team. BD teams work hard to get new clients in and client teams work hard to service accounts. Seems pretty simple until a client relationship goes wrong. It can seem logical to an account team to pull the “fire them” card, while the BD stresses about how to replace that revenue. Some of us have experienced scenarios of toxic client relationships that cause weight gain, tears, sleepless nights, and have the serious impact of creating negative employee morale. Of course it makes sense to sunset those relationship, but even in very black and white instances, a thoughtful process needs to be followed and can take time. It’s important for BD and service teams to work together to identify the “right” kind of clients that have the best chance for success, which often hinges on an alignment of agency and client values and culture.

“We can work it out, we can work it out”

At the end of the day, we all want what’s good for our clients and employees. While there are examples of blissful agency/client relationships—most are just that—relationships, requiring strong communication, compromise and yes, sometimes, “no.”

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