How do you navigate difficult conversations with clients?

We asked designers how they decide when to say no to a client and when is the right time to walk away. co-founder and creative director Sam Taylor

As a digital agency owner recently niching into the MedTech and GreenTech spaces, deciding when to say no or walk away from a client is crucial. There are four key factors I consider:

We assess if the client’s needs align with our strengths. If it’s not a good fit, it’s better for both parties to explore other options.

We follow ethical standards and avoid clients whose projects conflict with our values.

We evaluate our workload and resources. If we lack capacity to deliver the attention a project requires, we may decline or postpone it.

We prioritise strong relationships. If communication or compatibility issues arise early on, it’s better to part ways to avoid future difficulties.

Saying no or walking away isn’t taken lightly. We focus on clients with whom we can create meaningful partnerships and achieve outstanding results. It ensures the long-term success and reputation of our agency.

Mother Design client services director Annabel Engels

Determining when to decline a client or walk away from a project often boils down to attitude and mindset. While adjusting briefs, building chemistry and adapting processes are important, if a client’s values don’t align with ours, it’s time for the “it’s not you, it’s me” line.

Design agencies like Mother Design act as collaborative consultants, integrating into the client’s team before the project begins, surpassing typical design partner expectations and ensuring that the brand’s foundations can withstand challenges such as instability, economic downturns and moments of prosperity.

Our objective is to deliver the most impactful solution, which may differ from the client’s initial request. For example, a client may seek a packaging redesign but require a strategic repositioning. Some clients may embrace this shift, while others may not fully understand it.

We prioritise creating enduring brands with significant commercial impact. If a client hinders our ability to achieve this, sometimes we need to walk away.

Vault49 co-founder and executive creative director John Glasgow

There are lots of reasons why we would choose not to work on a project. Red flags for us would be if the brief, objectives and measures of success are not clear from the outset, or if they are changed during the project without the client taking responsibility and adjusting the scope of work accordingly. We also won’t take on a project if an unpaid (or poorly paid) pitch is requested, or if we don’t have access to decision-makers.

Like most agencies, we’ve all experienced the negative impact of taking on projects like this. Equally, if the brand or project is not aligned with our team’s expertise, or we are simply too busy at the time and would have to rely on freelancers to complete it, then we would decline. From an internal point of view, accepting a project on these grounds could affect team morale, and we all know that a happy team is the most effective team! The ideal client is one that sets a very clear brief, is genuinely excited by how we can transform their brand together, and works in true partnership throughout the process.

UnitedUs strategy partner Natalie Burns

There will always be instances where you can’t see the bad relationship until you’re in it. But as soon as the red flags appear, as soon as you hear something that catches your breath or leaves you feeling the need to shake something off, you need to take a step back and assess the relationship.

We’ve had difficult conversations with clients early on into relationships because we needed to unpack their intentions. Had they answered in a way that jarred with our working principles or ethics, we would terminate the contract with immediate effect. The first step is always a very direct conversation. If you’re working internationally, a lot can be mistaken across cultures and languages, so it’s important to make sure you are being clear and receiving clarity before you make the final call.

Love founder and executive creative director David Palmer

There are definitely times to say no or walk away. Sometimes the decision is easy – a client that won’t pay or a conflict of interest. Other times are harder to navigate. To give an example, an iconic FMCG brand we’d worked with tirelessly on establishing a global brand hired a new CMO who invited us to pitch for the work we’d been leading on for years.

When we saw the brief, we knew that to win it we’d have to unravel the design we’d worked so hard on. The design we still believed in. We simply didn’t have the heart for it – and you won’t win a pitch if your heart’s not in it. So, we did the difficult thing. We respectfully declined and walked away. A short-term loss maybe, but the right long-term strategic decision.

Our main priorities will always be our team culture and agency reputation. Great teams create great work, and that work attracts more clients with great briefs. But to create that level of work, people need to be motivated and excited by the opportunity, to be given challenging briefs from clients that are brave and brands with a cultural edge. Without it, people move on.

Household executive creative director Siu-Lan Choi

We are all about turning customers into fans. We use ‘Fame, Fans and Fortune’ with every client we work with to ensure we create holistic and lasting impact, unlock brand equity and emotionally connect with communities. We want to work with the most exciting brands in the world; those that have the ambition to be brave and collaborate, so that together, we are innovating big ideas that means fortune for their brand and business, of course, but also for people and planet.

When assessing whether clients are a good fit for us, we ask ourselves, will we find a great partnership in this brand, with values that match our own and with the desire to generate breakthrough ideas that not only result in commercial success but create better outcomes and deeper fandoms? It needs to draw us in too – will we too fall in love with the brand and become its newest fans?

Glock head of agency operations Rob Bowes

There’s a natural perception that saying “no” is a negative response, but in our experience, if you have a strong relationship with a client this isn’t necessarily the case. With this strong personal and professional connection comes a level of trust that both parties inherently have the best interests of a project at heart; disagreeing or challenging a suggestion is a constructive part of the process rather than a negative barrier.

These types of discussions should be embraced, not shied away from. They generally deliver more accomplished work – which is why the relationship between client and agency began in the first place! It also isn’t a benefit to anyone in the long run to always hear “yes”, and your relationship will ultimately be stronger for it. Win, win.

Robot Food managing director Dave Timothy

When you start working with a client, you both need to recognise that not everything will run smoothly: plans change, scope creeps – but you should still understand the bigger picture. More than anything else, you both treat creativity for what it is: something special to be enjoyed, not endured.

In those crucial initial meetings, it’s important to ask how they will react if you need to push back or stand your ground. Some might plainly call this “saying no”, but it’s more about explaining why something may not work, not be possible, or be as successful as we all want it to be. It’s vital that we use our experience to support our clients to make informed decisions by clearly explaining the terrain in which we’re making our decisions. If you’ve laid this groundwork and things aren’t working, it’s time to rethink.

Knowing we’re going to have fun on a project is so important to us as well. As an independent agency, we are lucky to decide which clients we’re going to partner with. We ask ourselves a question not every agency will: “Are we going to enjoy working on this?” Everything takes care of itself from there on in.

Banner image credit: Monkey Business Images on Shutterstock

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