Do we ever say no to clients? Yes. Here’s why.

The headline might have brought to mind a familiar scenario.

Client: Shouldn’t the email blast have our logo in it somewhere?

Designer: Your logo is in it. Down there in the corner. Get closer to the screen.

Client: I guess I see it. Could we maybe . . . embiggen it a smidgen?

Designer: No. Next question.

Maybe it’s never happened exactly like that but, most of us in marketing have witnessed exchanges along those lines. The designer in that scenario has taken her advisor role to its extreme, where advice has transmogrified into unyielding command.

We don’t do that here. (If you don’t believe me, here’s what you should do: Become our client. Then you’ll see. I stand ready to receive your call at 336-676-6822.)

But we do say “no” sometimes. And when I tell you about a recent example, your first reaction might be something like “What kind of naïve imbecile would do that?”

There are times when I am a naïve imbecile, but this was not one of those times. What happened was, a client called and said “I’ve got some money here and I’d like to give it to you folks. Please take it and use it to redesign our sales kit.”

So yeah, here’s the part where you go “Did you really say no to that?” And then your next question is “Can I have the phone number of that client please?” (Now I’m saying “No” to you.)

Of course there is more to the story. I didn’t just decline the funds and wish my client a good day. I reviewed her sales kit and agreed that it could stand some grooming. However, I knew that the basket of money she was waving in my face was all she had in her marketing budget for the rest of the fiscal year. Some serious prioritization was in order.

Now, this client wasn’t asking me for financial advice. She wanted design advice. So I was indeed risking a scenario in which she picked up her basket of money and stormed out.

It was a risk worth taking. In our experience, good clients welcome all kinds of advice, even when it is counter to their original request. In a job long ago, in a galaxy far away, I had a client who had built an astonishingly successful logistics company. He was a really smart guy—smart enough to welcome challenges. I once attended a meeting in his company’s stately conference room; also in attendance was my trusted account director, Mike. At a certain point in the meeting, the client held up an ad he had torn out of a magazine. It featured a scantily clad model draped over an outboard engine. My client asked “Why aren’t we doing stuff like this?”

The room got very quiet.

Mike (my hero) blurted “Because that would be the stupidest thing you could possibly do.”

The client smiled. He still liked the scantily clad model but he liked frank advice even more. (Mike and I expanded on that first comment, and the client saw our reasoning.)

Okay, back to my client with the request for a sales kit redesign. When I put the brakes on that idea, she was disappointed. She even kind of whined and begged a bit. (She was half-joking.) But when I told her that there were better uses for her remaining budget—uses more likely to trigger sales—she graciously accepted my advice.

Maybe we’ll get to redesigning the sales kit next year. Meanwhile, our client knows that if we always said “yes” to her suggestions it would only feel good for a while. The occasional “no” may be briefly annoying, but it can be more rewarding for the client in the long run.

Unreasonable Responses to Reasonable Requests

Why would a professional designer take a suggestion from a client who works in an entirely different field? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Sometimes clients have good ideas and it is a designer’s responsibility to listen with an open mind.

Two examples of bad responses to client requests suggest the advantages of a respectful give-and-take between businesses and their marketing partners. The stories highlight two extremes on the spectrum of how creative companies deal with suggestions from their clients.

One example comes from the case files right here at Red Letter Marketing. In our first discovery meeting with a new client, one of the things we discovered was how badly the company had been treated by its previous web design vendor. As a new website had taken shape over a period of several months, the client had posed reasonable questions concerning some of the creative decisions made by designers at the web firm. Among them: Are you folks sure (our new client had asked) that the headline font you’re using (the H1 font, in HTML-speak) is the best choice?

The response from the design firm was to send the client a link to Google Fonts, with a suggestion that he find one he likes. In a bizarre exaggeration of accommodation to client wishes, the design firm had simply sloughed off its role as experienced guide through the subjective decision-making process of font choice. When we heard this story, we realized that our client had been so ill-advised that we couldn’t wait to show him what a real marketing partnership is like.

At the other extreme is the creative individual who will brook no suggestions at all from the company funding the project. My favorite example of this behavior occurs in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, in which architect Howard Roark responds to changes made to his building design by, um…well, by blowing up the building.

Howard Roark might have had a legitimate beef. Maybe the design changes were bad ideas. But—dude. Dynamite? It’s a bit showy. Rand mimicked her character’s behavior when she learned that Roark’s speech to the jury had been trimmed in the screenplay of the movie starring Gary Cooper. In a fit of pique that lasted the rest of her life, she refused to sell the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged.

The vast majority of web designers avoid the use of explosives to make their point. And yet, a dismissive attitude to client requests is all too familiar. Ironically, the most unyielding creative people often attract a particular type of loyalty from clients who are reassured by their certainty.

Creative decisions are founded partly in reason and partly in a mysterious “gut feel” that arises from the interplay between a designer’s innate taste and the mix of current design trends. Designers call on their gut every day and each time they do, it gets stronger. So it’s more likely that a working designer will make, say, an appropriate font choice than would an accountant who may be looking at the bewildering variety of font choices for the first time.

But a designer who listens carefully to a client request is increasing the odds of creating something worthwhile. It doesn’t mean she must necessarily take the suggestion. But the willingness to consider its possible validity is a sign of openness that will serve both her and the client well. Legendary ad man Bill Bernbach made a shtick out of carrying around a card conveying the thought “Maybe he’s right.” While the card itself may have been a bit of show-biz, the sentiment strikes me as one that still rings true.