The Most Powerful Word in Agency New Business is NO.


The most game changing word in new business is one that advertising, digital and PR agencies rarely use. It is NO.

Yes. NO.  Agencies need to say NO more often in New Business.  I can’t do that you say.  I am a yes person.  It’s time to change.  The industry has changed.  Technology has changed.  Marketing has changed.  But many agencies haven’t changed.

I went to a very interesting New Business Conference recently sponsored by Think LA and Mirren.  I wrote about some observations in an article called To Grow Agencies Need to Focus on Things that Clients Can’t Do.

So here are suggested ways to respond to the New Business inquiries your agency may receive from companies, start ups, etc.

We are looking for an agency that can invest with us.

Say NO.

We would love to meet with you guys and get some new ideas.

Will you pay us for our time?  NO.

Then say NO.

Or you can also send them a ten page agreement with lots of legal terms saying a bunch of mumbo jumbo outlining you will own your creative and their children.  They will go away.  A proportion of clients save their careers by using agencies and have no idea how to conduct an agency search.

You may think that there is a ray of hope.  It is a mirage if people that don’t value your time, your work and your product.

Our budget is small but we are looking for a partner to help grow our business and then we will invest more.

Say NO.

When the calls come ask them if they are doing this review because it is mandated?  If they say YES. Then you say NO.

We are anxious to go to market.  Our timeline is aggressive and our budget is small but we are looking to grow.

Say NO.

All misguided New Business efforts aren’t just stimulated by untrained clients.  Most badly planned efforts at agencies start internally.

Here are some ways to respond to the internal amped up, often politically riddled New Business meetings you may have each Monday morning after the your status meeting.

This could lead to something.

Say NO. It will lead to nothing.  It is a low probability opportunity and New Business isn’t about playing the Quarter slots.

We should just give it a shot.

Say NO.  The person who said that had too many shots on the weekend.

Here are some things you can say YES to in New Business.

Say YES to growing your existing clients.  It is easier to grow your existing clients than winning New Business.

Say YES in taking the time and money that you would invest in fruitless searches and apply it to marketing your own agency.  The majority of you don’t do it very well.  I have seen it countless times as a search consultant and new business development person.

Say YES to NO.

You can connect with Hank on Linkedin

Follow his updates on twitter @hankblank


Watch his video on the Power of Networking.

You may also enjoy these articles.

When is it time to Fire Your Agency.

Peeling the Onion or New Business.

Winning New Business Is Easy.


24 thoughts on “The Most Powerful Word in Agency New Business is NO.

  1. chucksink

    Like this a lot, Hank. This is a hard thing to position to clients without lecturing (perception) them. I’ve been on the receiving end of hundreds of similar “RFP” propositions requiring my skin in the game. That’s for business partnerships, not agency-client business dealings. I used to look for the ray of hope and chase the unprofitable if any business. Today I’m fortunate to have wised up and thank such people for a nice conversation and move on. (They often call back with a more reasonable request.)

    Always like your blog.


  2. Hank, good timing.

    I am doing some project work for my old agency while doing the new search up in Seattle (need to track you down now that I am more settled in) and had a call yesterday and today that fit into different scenarios.

    The one yesterday contacted me investigating firms. Nice of him to be impressed by the agency website and positioning. The problem is that he could not tell me their business plan. He cited a successful product they, in a sense, would like to mimic, but they have not settled on a price point or even contracted for the manufacturing. He admitted he might be early but wanted to get a sense of when to start working with an agency.

    I will give him credit for his honestly in the exploration but really put the ball back in his court to refine the plan. The impression I got is that they saw how media boosted the product sales of the company he cited. I did a little checking and the other product launched in 2003, grew and did not start media efforts until 2009. This guy is looking to instantly buy brand credibility and also go around retail distribution with DR/e-commerce. He said (to your point) he wants a partner to work with from the ground up. Without knowing a lot about the other company i am going to assume they did a lot of groundwork between 2003 and 2009 to get themselves in the position to buy broader media and leverage their brand.

    My recommendaiton to the partner team was to leave a door open for discussion 1Q but request a clearer sense of their business plan for user target, price point (not set and premium to the company he is using for comparison), and marketing budget as part of overall operations. If they cannot address that upfront, we save a lot of time by not trying to do their thinking for them. If they do clarify their market position it may or may not work but then there is more foundation to figure things out.

    The one today, in contrast, has a track record, has identified things that are working and not working or feels can work better. We’ll see how it goes but a whole different perspective in what can be addressed.

  3. Lea

    I say YES, YES, YES to saying NO! I couldn’t agree more with the scenarios that you outlined above as the ones to avoid. I hope people will listen and just TRY it. I think it goes a long way in establishing the right kind of relationship with your clients.

  4. I don’t work for an agency, I’m in media sales and we get this all the time. The promise of more if we just work with them this one time. They will “remember” those who helped them along. IT NEVER HAPPENS. Thanks for the reminder not to fall for this nonsense.

  5. Bill Borders

    Nice. I’d add another, earlier time, to say No. As a Creative Director I look at the portfolio of work THEY have done for their brand to date. If it is consistently weak–and if there have been no significant people changes–I decline. This is not easy to do. It’s the learned outcome of repeated masochistic attempts to improve clients’ advertising in the misguided belief that I/we could change them and bring light unto their darkened ways. Wrong. Bad work is usually the result of bad clients.

  6. Carey Jernigan

    Great post Hank. We refer to these prospects as LBF’s. (I’ll let you imagine what it stands for) We started saying no last yearand it was the best year ever!

  7. If I got paid for every time I heard one of these statements I’d be rich and retired. But the big mystery is, “how does one know that an RFP is being sent out to justify an agency or vendor selection that’s already been made?”

  8. Hi Hank-

    We started saying “no” two and a half years ago. Since then, we’ve doubled our capitalized billings, our revenue and our staff. “No” is about self-respect–and legitimate potential clients respond to that. “No” is about limits–and the more scurrilous of potential clients turn and walk away when faced with them. Thanks for post. And thanks to Mirren (and the irrepressible Brent) for making this a key recommendation in their new business approach.

  9. Colette Chandler

    Bravo Hank for such a well-written article. I ran my own consulting business for years and like many, found myself saying “yes” to things I knew would never work. No should be second in our vocabulary. It took me years of time and learning that I should charge by value, not by the hour. This saved a lot of time–they didn’t want to pay? They could go elsewhere to someone willing to do it cheaper.

  10. Love this post, Hank. To paraphrase Stephen Covey, “It’s easy to say No when you have a bigger Yes.” A bigger Yes could be a desire to only do good work with good people in a respectful atmosphere; or to genuinely earn your market value; or to avoid people who open the conversation by asking for anything for free (a good rule for life in general).

    In the 15 years I’ve been consulting, I’ve said No a LOT. It’s served me well, allowing me to focus on the things that really matter. And ask me how many of the late-’90s dot-coms – you know, the ones that wanted me to “work now & get paid later, when we inevitably strike it rich” – ever became a viable concern? (Answer: Zero. And even if they had made it, I wouldn’t have regretted the decision to walk away from those conversations.)

    Your post makes many terrific points that new business leaders would do well to heed. Nicely done, as usual.

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