The cliché is that ‘no’ is the most important word in New-Business. So why don’t agencies have the confidence to say it?

I was once at a global network agency and we received a pitch brief from GSK. Happy days. Except we disagreed with their preferred approach. So we politely declined.

Two weeks later, the client called again – they’d come round to our viewpoint. Result! From then on, we knew we’d win and we did.

Strong, confident behaviour from us. The best solution for the client. A win-win. So why aren’t stories like this more common?

Why finding a fit is so hard

Two reasons stand out. Firstly, agencies are rarely confident animals – our positivity is often just blind optimism. I’ll spare you the dating analogy, but <coughs> ‘desperate’? Not a good look – or a means of demonstrating the specific expertise the client needs.

The second reason is more operational – it’s about authority. Qualification is one of the muddiest steps in the newbiz process. Suffice to say, your qualifier-in-chief needs to be empowered as well as capable.

Push back nicely

I say capable because pushing back isn’t just saying ‘sorry, it’s our way or the highway’. That’s not polite – a lesson I almost learned the hard way…

One day, the VP, Brand & Communications at Fujitsu, Guy Daniels, rang to invite us to pitch. We were having a great qualifying conversation until he very reasonably questioned my gentle interrogation. Inexplicably, I said I was “de-risking” the opportunity.


I still cringe, even now.

Fortunately, Guy’s a lovely bloke. ‘De-risking’ became a running joke rather than a bullet to the head and we ended up winning. He makes a valuable about context:

“Of course agencies should understand the brief before accepting an invitation to compete for the work. But if a senior executive contacts you directly, most of the standard qualification isn’t necessary”

So the golden rule? By all means challenge and qualify… but mind your Ps and Qs.

Getting your challenge right

Clearly there’s a balance to be struck here. Going back to the GSK example, Group Brand Director Chantal Busson says:

“Sure, there can be a difference of opinion, but instead of either side being stubborn or arrogant, the agency must be confident in their expertise and take the client on a journey”

Simple, really.

Expertise breeds confidence

Ultimately, if clients value expertise, then agencies must demonstrate deep knowledge. Knowing where your value lies (and, critically, where it doesn’t) enables you to qualify better and win more – not to mention be respected more the morning after.

Working this out isn’t even that hard. And it certainly doesn’t have to take long. New-business isn’t about promoting everything you could do, it’s about codifying how and why you do what you love doing.

Nailing this breeds confidence. Then playing your ‘no’ card becomes as simple, rewarding and effective as it gets.