Learning to Love the Word 'No'

Clients Want Agencies That Are Liberal With Their Ability to Reject Ideas

By Published on .

2013 was the year I learned to love the word "no." So much is said about its counterpart, "yes," with all of its affirmative can-do-it-ness, but I'm here to say that "no" is the new "yes" -- and if you find yourself running a start-up, you'll quickly realize the direct correlation between your survival and ability to sling the word "no" early, often and fast -- with the matter-of-fact ease of a veteran Vegas dealer tossing cold cards onto a once-hot table.

We've learned this: The key to running a start-up is prioritization and the key to prioritization is knowing when to say "no." Every day, we're faced with a rapid-fire deluge of questions, challenges and opportunities -- only we don't know which is which. Our job is to quickly get through all of the "no's" in time to find the one or two "yeses" that might actually make a difference. To do this, we have to project how each scenario might play out -- a Rube Goldberg-like mental analysis of twists, turns and domino falls that ultimately wind up in front of one of two doors: "waste of time" or "worth the exercise." Our livelihood depends on us picking the right one. And we have to do this in a matter of nanoseconds, a hundred times a day.

To help, we developed a hardened, three-part rule to live by:

  • Clients come first,
  • new business is next
  • … and the business of "us" is third.

All "yeses" and "nos" work accordingly. And while it's easy to think the obvious answer to client business is to say "yes" to everything, I'd argue that one of our heaviest responsibilities is knowing when to say "no" -- not just to clients, but on their behalf. Clients want agencies that are liberal with their ability to reject ideas, resources and directions that will ultimately waste their time and money. With deadline and budget screws tightening every day, they need us to act fast, make decisions in a shorthand way, and still deliver the creative goods. They're looking for a few good "nos."

With new business, our questions are these: Does this prospect feel like the right fit for us creatively and culturally? Will it help us build the agency's profile and allow us to bring in new talent that will make us better? Or are we chasing a rabbit down a hole?

Saying "no" to new business is like saying "no" to your kids: It hurts you more than it does them, but if you don't say it now, the later years can be a disaster.

Now I hear my friends with improvisational comedy backgrounds cringing. The Second City alums who make up a big part of our creative team are all about the power of "yes, and …" They'd rather never shut down an idea, instead politely steering it in another direction with a positive "and…" So, using the Second City philosophy, I'll close by saying "yes, and if you really want to move your agency in the right direction you have start saying 'no.'"

Sorry guys, I couldn't help myself.

Tom O'Keefe is CEO at O'Keefe, Reinhard & Paul.
Most Popular
In this article: