The positive in being negative – why you should expect your agency to say NO more often


The creative industry is pretty much like any other service business. Most of us in it want to make money through making the people we serve happy. In our case, clients who need branding, design and innovation.

With more than 150,000 creative outfits to choose from in London alone, great quality design is now pretty much a given (although we’re surprised to see how much shoddy design still makes it through, but that’s the a subject of a future post). So as an agency, our focus really needs to be in adding value if we are to compete at the top level.

We therefore look to deliver not only exceptional design and innovation, but exceptional experiences for our customers as well. We ask if the people we serve are enjoying the process? Are they getting more in some way, like learning a different perspective on things when the job is done? What do they really think, feel and say about us when we leave the room? 

In our drive to add value beyond delivering the goods to the highest standard, we have inadvertently developed an acute willingness to be accommodating – to make our clients’ lives easier, happier or more rewarding. 

Much like the Man From Delmonte, we say YES!, and we’ve noticed we say it quite a lot: 

"Yes, sure we'll take what your previous agency has messed up and come to your rescue.”

“Yes, absolutely, we’ll find a way of cramming all that content into an A5 leaflet.”

“Yes, we’re happy to submit a creative proposal even though you’ve invited ten other agencies to do the same.”

"Yes, no problem, of course we can build a couple of unicorns into your app.”

And while all this saying YES doesn't go unnoticed most of the time, often earning a few feel good brownie points, it also uncovers deep rooted issues that can potentially undermine the exceptional experiences and even the end products we’re trying to create.

You see the main problem with being too accommodating comes down to the management of expectations, or, more accurately, raising them to unreasonable and occasionally unachievable heights. 

If a parent says YES to their child every time they asked for ice cream, the child may be temporarily happy but ultimately is going to suffer for it. Say YES to working through the night too often and you'll end up a wreck and hating the job you once loved. If a doctor says YES to prescribing pills at every request, the consequences could be very serious indeed.

Here are just some of the dangers of saying YES too often in our industry:

  • Compromised design

  • A bitter experience for the client

  • Disgruntled staff

  • Inefficiency

  • Scope creep

  • Missed deadlines

We once developed an ad concept to promote our own agency which went something like this:

We’re the agency that likes to say NO.

NO lengthy meetings

NO dreary conference calls

NO middle managers

NO over-promising

NO smoke and mirrors

NO hidden costs

NO contact reports

NO last resorts

NO Gannt charts

NO false sense of security

NO yes men

NO us and them

The sentiment behind the words was to stand out by saying something mildly controversial and communicating the common sense of cutting out all the usual agency bullshit at the same time. We didn’t use it in the end as advertising per se is not part of our current marketing strategy.

But the main reason we didn’t use the concept was that it doesn’t match the real experience of the creative process. Occasionally we’ll need the odd lengthy meeting or dreary conference call. We’ll inevitably have to produce a Gannt chart or two, even it’s just to please our clients’ bosses boss. 

Yes, the reality is we need to say YES from time to time in the interest of getting great work through. Applying a blanket rule of saying NO, even if it’s with integrity, is a fanciful thought and just won’t work when trying to navigate through the maze of commercial creativity and innovation. Design is always a compromise, the trick is to know when and where these compromises should be made. 

Of course we should learn to say NO when we’re being asked to do something wholly unreasonable. Say NO to protect the product we’re lovingly creating or the clients we are serving. Say NO when we’re thinking long term for the benefit of all. 

We’ll say NO, but we’ll say it at the right time and in the right way.

Helen SproatComment