Chapter Ten: The Creative “Hell No”
Saying yes and going for the gold is one thing; saying no, and hell no, is another. Having the confidence to know the difference between a good proposal and a bad one is tremendously important. Learning how to say no can be just as important, if not more so, than saying yes.
Author and business titan Seth Godin is a huge fan of the “hell no.” He emphasizes that, “Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt.” In fact he goes as far as saying that, “Strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations.”
Our culture tends to be more of a yes-at-all-costs kind of place, and many of us were groomed as professional people pleasers. Add the financial ebbs and flows of the creative world, and it becomes extremely difficult to say no to existing work or turn down new work. Frequently saying no is harder than saying yes. We have been trained to take what we can get, and almost believe that saying no gives the universe the impression that we don't need work. Or, we fear that if we turn something down and nothing better comes in we will be, in effect, punished for our pride.
Being selective in the type of work you take on is a critical part of climbing the creative ladder. If you become a Jack or Jill of All Trades, no one takes you seriously. It's harder to command higher fees and you look like a hack, insincere about what you do, or not good enough to focus on a specific area and have a defined vision.
To the extent that you can discriminate the type of work you take on and still survive financially, you will be able to 1) get more of the work you want; 2) define yourself faster as an expert in your field; and 3) command higher fees and revenue. If a client is deciding between three fine art painters for a large commission of a mermaid in the sea and he or she has three options — a guy who paints anything from cartoons to impressionist landscapes, an artist who paints nudes, or an artist who specializes in under the sea themes — who’s the obvious choice? Especially in cases where large financial decisions need to be justified to a number of people, one's specialty becomes his or her insurance policy.
As our own bosses, we sometimes forget the power we have to drive and direct our businesses. We don't give ourselves permission to say no or not do things that feel wrong or off to us. It's precisely in these moments that we need to double down on courage and explore the continuum of choice. At a minimum, we need to recognize that we always have a choice (even if it appears not to be a particularly good one). From there we can navigate all the options in the spectrum from hell yes to hell no.
What does each option feel like? What is the consequence of each decision? Just remembering that there is a continuum is a step forward. When we traverse into black-and-white thinking about what we have to do, we're already in deep trouble. Fear, guilt and obligation are poor reasons to do anything.
WHEN TO SAY NO TO NEW CLIENTS:
(or at least take a long pause and assess the situation with more information before saying yes):
1) Your sixth sense tells you no. When you have a gut feeling that something is off or will end badly, this is perhaps your strongest reason to say no. That feeling isn't coming from nowhere. It's coming from collective experience, your delicate, perceptive wiring, and intangible clues that are warning you to stay away or at least take precautions.
2) The client becomes cagey about money, glosses over the payment details, or simply shows no interest in discussing the financials of the job. This isn’t just a huge red flag. It's a national parade of flags. People who are serious about commissioning a service or purchasing a product always want to discuss the financial details of the job before almost anything else.
3) The scope of the project seems inconsistent with the business or ability to pay. We talk a lot about money because often it is a prime indicator of where one's head and heart are. People who are willing and able to pay for services actually like to hand over the dough.
When someone approaches you with a deal or request for proposal that seems too good to be true or it seems a bit off in relation to the size of the business and likely budget, it probably is. Similarly, when a client approaches you and is in a big hurry to get the project done, it is also a sign; perhaps he or she has not thought this through and will only do so when it's too late.
4) The client has a reputation for abusing creative-service providers. Oftentimes the hero clients or hero brands that everyone dreams of working for come with unanticipated complications or non-standard working practices. Companies that are in demand will treat vendors and creative-service providers harshly because they can get away with it. This can be anything from paying six months late, as is the case at a major Condé Nast publication, to demanding that creatives hand over all their rights, to forcing rates to a near-minimum-wage level.
5) You are at your capacity with existing clients and taking on a new client would jeopardize the quality of work you provide. Sometimes we are just too damn busy to take on new work and do not have the capacity to immediately scale up our business accordingly. If taking on something will decrease your ability to focus on your current projects or will yield lower-quality output all around, it's best to either move the job down the pipeline (if possible) or simply say no. Producing less-than-great work will come back to haunt you and defeats the purpose of taking on new business in the first place.