When to say “no” to new business

When a marketer calls an agency review and asks new agencies to pitch, the default position from agencies is typically “yes!”. 

Marketers too are typically in a “yes” mindset – wanting to be open to all permutations and possibilities, while agencies are also in a “yes” mindset – answering yes to capability questions and yes to invitations to participate in the upcoming pitch process.

But yes isn’t always the smartest answer. Marketers and agencies should feel confident and good about saying “no” when the situation calls for it.  And in some cases, “no” is perhaps the best word of all.

Here are some examples of when saying “no” is a way better answer:


Agency pitches can be time consuming and disruptive for both marketers and agencies, and an honest, straight forward “no”, can save time, money and angst on both sides.

Inviting incumbent agencies

Unless you have a corporate mandate to call an agency search, you need to be very clear why you’re calling an agency review and in particular, why your incumbent agency isn’t satisfying your needs. Inviting an incumbent agency to participate just to be “polite” isn’t enough. If the incumbent can cut it – then perhaps a search shouldn’t be happening in the first place. If you don’t think they can cut – say so and say “no”.

Window shopping

Window-shopping isn’t a reason to put an agency on a pitch list – particularly if you don’t think they have the skill-set or horsepower to manage your business. If you’re just curious about an agency’s capabilities – be direct and call them. Let them know your points of interest and be clear about your goals. But say “no” to including them if you’re just window-shopping.


Whether we like it or not, corporate politics can play a role in the development of agency review lists. While challenging, politics should be squashed (or at least addressed) before your invite list gets into the market. So when it comes to agencies and politics – steer clear and say “no”.

Chalk and cheese

Fit and chemistry are huge drivers in any pitch process – even if they’re not attributes on a scorecard.  It’s very rare that a marketing team will choose an agency they don’t feel comfortable with – even if they’re ticking all the functional boxes.  If you have concerns about an agency’s fit or chemistry with your team – chances are you should listen to your gut and say “no”.

Cheapest price

This is more than a “no”, it’s a “no-no”. Agency relationships that are forged on price alone don’t last. Services get cut, resources get throttled back and disagreements quickly bubble up.  Always look at value and quality of services relative to their cost.  If costs are way cheaper than others and it seems too good to be true – it probably is.  Say “no”.


While the pressure to drive revenue and secure new business may never go away, there are times when a well placed “no” can help you focus on current clients or other new business that may be better suited to your capabilities.

Incumbent agency

If you’ve been invited by your client to participate in an agency review process and you know it’s not a corporate mandate to review after x number of years, you need to understand why they’re calling a pitch and specifically what your chances of success are.  If you’re not completely comfortable with the reasoning, it’s probably the right time to say “no”.

In over your head

While large clients or complex marketing organizations may seem attractive at the outset, they can present enormous risk to smaller agencies if things go wrong.  Some marketers place a cap on the percentage of business they represent in smaller agencies, simply because they don’t want to bankrupt them if things change, budgets get cut or alignments force an agency change down the road.  If you think your agency is in over its head and you could potentially be putting the agency at risk – say “no”.

Current commitments

If you’ve recently won a new, prestigious client, your agency is growing really quickly and / or you’re working through other growing pains, you should consider whether adding further headaches into the mix is the smartest thing to do. While the increased revenue might be appealing – the operational challenges won’t be.  This time round, say “no”.

There’s no chemistry

What kind of agency are you?  What size and kind of marketer hits your sweet-spot as an agency?  These questions not only help define what’s not right, but really help define where and in what industries an agency can excel. Agencies should define their own best fit parameters and interview the potential client as much as the marketer wants to interview them. If the chemistry is wrong or just not there – say “no”.

When your gut says no

The good news here is that it’s probably easier for an agency to quantify a gut reaction than it is for a marketer to implement a gut reaction decision. If your gut or your team is saying no, it probably means the chemistry isn’t a good match with your agency’s culture – and “no” is probably the right answer.

“No” isn’t always a bad word when it comes to participating in an agency pitch – it’s often saying “yes” that causes the problems.  So whether you’re a marketer or an agency – feel good about saying “no” when it’s the right thing to do.


Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc  offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

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