Nick's Insight

Learning to say 'NO'

January 22, 2019
Nick Prescott
Managing Director

In the early days, when you are growing, for example a design business (any business), you want work right, any work? So your instinct is to seek out opportunities and pursue any project brief like an energetic dog chasing a new stick.

It’s even more exciting when keen enquires come straight to you via your website or Linkedin… that sudden rush of adrenaline, the excitement and sense of hope. “More work”.

Whether you’re an exuberant newby, or even a gnarly old veteran (like me), getting excited at the prospect of a new brief is inevitable; it’s pure human nature. The minute you stop enjoying that part, you’re either dead, absurdly rich, or in the wrong job. If you’re the former you shouldn’t be answering the phone.


Saying yes to anything is where so many of us go wrong. The sobering reality that comes with winning and doing ‘any’ work is that often it’s not suitable, the brief consumes far more time than it should have and ultimately isn’t profitable. It just won’t help you grow your business. More likely it’s actually holding you back. It’s unrewarding on so many levels, yet you keep doing it. Why?  

I’m not afraid to admit that I fell into the ‘any’ work trap for years and it’s difficult to see it, let alone get free and go against everything you think you know. It’s addictive and when you’re in the haze it feels impossible to say NO.

You see it’s too easy for design agencies to say ‘yes we do that’ to get work and then engage other specialists (or cheaper labour) to deliver certain aspects of a brief more profitably. Or alternatively you might re-assign existing expertise to get stuff done, even if it’s not their thing. Ever seen a Creative Director’s face when you ask him to create a flyer with client written copy, 3 lo-res images and a piexalted logo with a 10 minute budget? – it’s a bad idea. If you need to adopt either of these or other hacks to win a project it more likely means the work is unsuitable for your team, or the clients budget is unrealistic relative to your skills and experience.

So where do you draw the line – both for yourself, your team and your clients? And let’s not ignore that some of the onus is on them too. Clients may be relying on everything you say, maybe they’re a little lazy, possibly naive. Dare I say it they could even be taking advantage of your enthusiasm to get what they need at a good price (their prerogative).

Any way you look at it, there’s going to be a point in time when your attempts to make gold from shit through creative enterprise, or corner cutting will blow up in yours or your clients face. And all because you said yes when really you ought to have said no.


Ok, so learning to say no is actually easier than it seems. You see there’s a little voice of sense whispering no in our ears but we choose to ignore when opportunity (money) comes along.

All too often we allow its call to be muffled by the sound of imaginary £20’s being counted in our heads. We always calculate the upside before even contemplating any downside, gain before pain and all that. That’s not a crime, it’s a natural tendency in the infancy of experience so nobody’s judging here.

The good news is that the muffled voice in your ear will become louder and louder once you figure out what’s important and remind yourself why you do what you do.

In my experience, the way forward for a design agency is to figure out what kind of work you want to be doing, more so what type of work you and your team are actually best at. Putting money and clients to one side, if you could choose without any restriction, what would you be doing all day. If you have a big team this will be harder, but try to focus on your core skills… or decide if you really need such a big team!

Then think about you and your team as real people. What makes you tick? What do you believe in? Why is that valuable and important? How does what you do have an impact on your world? What would you miss if you didn’t do what you do? I could add dozens more questions, you get the gist.

If you’ve given this any thought, and you’re remotely creative you’ll probably have a nice visual in your heads – so what’s stopping you? Perhaps you’ve thought about this a lot during those dark days, looking that crummy brief wishing you had a better one or praying for the day that awful £50 campaign + free logo budget client goes elsewhere. When you learn to say no what you have visualised is entirely possible.


You see when you join up you’re best at and what’s important to you, that voice will tell you when to say no. Draw up a complex infographic if you’re that way inclined (frustrated designer), or better still just scribble some stuff down and drill it into your head to use as a sanity check each time you get a new brief. Sure, we can’t pretend fees and budget aren’t a factor, of course they are. Just be honest with yourself and try to ensure that any work you take on is worth it; add up all the pros and cons and trust that voice in your ear - when it says no, listen. If you’re still not sure, re-visit your visual and ask yourself if you’d put this new brief into your visual.  

Be prepared to say NO.


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