If we value what we do, we need to sometimes say ‘no’ to clients

Accept every piece of work. Keep the revenue coming in. Rinse, repeat. That's what agencies have done for so long. But a positive change could be here, says M&C Saatchi's Russell Hopson. One in which agencies begin to truly understand their value and turn clients down from time to time.

In certain circumstances, the most powerful phrase is a polite and respectful “no, thank you”.

Real life (as opposed to our blessed/cursed weird-ass work lives in the communications industry) demonstrates this to us all the time. As teenagers, we constantly wanted girlfriends and boyfriends we couldn’t have (no, just me?) and had clubs and cliques we wanted to be in. In our so-called ‘grown up’ lives, if we want to buy something, nothing is more infuriating than it not being available to us.

I’ve been thinking about this because recently we chose to decline work from two separate clients.

In neither case did it go particularly well.

In spite of my very English attempt to put it in the most polite of terms, both conversations were either testy or sad. I was genuinely surprised, because I felt we had given clear signals up to this point that this possibility was just that: possible.

But then, we dared to cross the line and say, ‘no, thank you’.

In my many years in this business, it’s something I’ve done before: that time the client and the account manager had a thing, the time the client was genuinely unpleasant on an enduring basis, and that time the client wanted 12 month payment terms. All these have happened, and more. This time around, it was a combination of instinct and the value on paper seeming insufficient for the tasks ahead. It wasn’t that the clients were being cheapskates or disingenuous – far from it. I genuinely think they’d undervalued the work required.

But saying no was, and remains, a rare occurrence. Thank goodness.

Many of you will have seen the story of Audi in the UK, which called a pitch last month. Some big hitting agencies declined to pitch, and it took them a while to finally get a pitch list together. Behind this drama was a heady mix of general distaste that BBH, who served so long and so brilliantly for the brand, could be discarded so summarily, and the fact that the Volkswagen Audi Group had clearly set out a procurement process that was going to be extremely schwierig (difficult). This led to an unusual case of solidarity breaking out among some of London’s finest. Keep an eye on that story.

We are a service business that should take risks and have real faith in our clients. But I sense that saying no is something we will see more of. I know other agency leaders who have taken similarly conservative paths with clients and prospective clients in recent months.

The reality is that driving and maintaining a great communications business is harder than ever – we’re being disrupted, like every other business in the world. Procurement would like to commoditise our work and people into units that can be accounted for like nuts and washers, the digital world exacerbates the disintegration of audiences, making our messages harder and harder to deliver, and our talent is trickier to attract and retain than ever before. I know, I know: cue the world’s smallest violin. Agency boss whinges about how hard his job is.

But it is tough. And maybe that is making us all much more careful about the assignments we choose and those we decline. Which is, if you think about it, rather counterintuitive. And possibly counter to the trends that have got the agency business to where it currently sits.

The practice up until now has been to accept any revenue you can. Because we’ve got to keep the money coming in, and keep winning new business, haven’t we? Well, maybe, but the long-term effect of that is to devalue what we do.

Perhaps we’re starting to see a change of heart – a positive one, in my view. One that signals greater pride in what we can do and rediscovers the value of our work to the business world.

There are, the argument goes, only two departments in a company that actually add value to it: research and development and marketing. They are the only disciplines that actually make value – R&D through creating new products that people can buy, and marketing through adding value to price and the volume sold. Our industry is the very pointy end of what marketeers can do. We make value for them. Let’s all try and remember that.

And a big part of remembering that is to occasionally, when the work or remuneration isn’t reasonable or fair, say ‘no, thank you’.

Like teenage girls did in the eighties. To me.

Russell Hopson is the group managing director for M&C Saatchi


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