I saw Blair Enns speak about the ‘power of no’ recently. Enns is the founder of Win Without Pitching and works with creative agencies that choose not to part with their thinking for free.
Enns believes that saying no to requests for free creative and explaining how you work puts power and control into your hands as an agency. When you win a piece of work it’s because you’ve decided that the relationship is balanced, you’re selling your expertise for it’s true value and on terms that will work for you and your client.
Nice in theory you might say. Turns out it’s nice in practice too.
Here’s a story from one of the DBA’s members, Exesios. The consultancy takes the view that a creative pitch is never in the best interests of clients or them. It has made a strategic decision on how it’s going to win work and it sticks to it. It regularly and successfully changes clients’ understanding of why free pitching won’t deliver the best results and it wins its business without creative pitches against agencies that do. It’s how they work. And it gets results.
Exesios managing director Paul Brammer says, ‘Since we stopped free pitching we’ve doubled our turnover in two years. Saying no is part of our strategy and it’s powerful. We’re more positive with how we use our time and it shows in our body language. It’s about self-confidence and belief – if we don’t make money, there’s no point in being in business. Transparency, being upfront about things, and being concrete is a big part of what makes us professional.’
To put this approach in context, Exesios was one of five consultancies, including the incumbent, invited to tender for some web design work. The client, a professional services firm (via a marketing agency intermediary that Exesios had worked with before) asked each consultancy to provide creative ideas for the website. Four of the agencies duly obliged. Exesios declined, sending a one-page letter, explaining why and including the extract:
‘As members of the Design Business Association, their Code of Conduct recommends: “Members should not take part in pitches, which require unpaid work. The level of payment for pitches should relate to the time and effort involved”.
‘We would like to explain why we are so determined not to provide you with “indicative” designs. It is not that we are lazy and cannot be bothered – it is in fact quite the opposite …
‘An indicative design is a false indication of the capabilities of any design consultancy – when you actually need a team that is prepared to spend time getting to understand your business objectives and reflecting that in good design and web site structure.
‘Past actual work and experience is a far better indicator of a consultancy’s worth. It is also worth talking to current and past clients who have experience of the day-to-day relationship and workings of the personalities within Exesios.’
To back up the letter and its behavior, and as a mark of its professionalism, Exesios attached two documents, the DBA’s response to free pitch requests and the DBA’s Code of Conduct.
The intermediary agency backed Exesios’s approach and ethos by sending an email to the client arguing that Exesios had not had to do any speculative designs before, with the decision usually being made based on the quality of previous work, competitive price and good references.
As a result, the client came round to their point of view, indicating that they understood Exesios’s point, and withdrew the creative requirement for the other prospective company as well, thus saving time and money for all concerned. They agreed to look at past designs and take into account the different requirements of those organisations. They went ahead with the presentations and prepared carefully as to how they could probe the prospective companies abilities to meet the firm’s requirements.
And the final decision? Following the presentation pitches, Exesios was appointed to create the company’s new website.
Brammer says, ‘Since changing our approach and saying no to requests for free creative, we’re hitting figures we never thought we’d hit. We’ve got at least 5 months of work in progress for next year already and we’re 30-40% up on last year’s income. With the extra money we look after our people. Our guys are looking at better houses and transport. Our philosophy means we can pay them the right level and they have a better quality of life.’
You can’t say no to that.