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Why Can’t Marketers Say No? — By James P. Stuart, Senior Marketing Coordinator, AHBL Inc.


There are few words more valuable, but less understood than, “No.”

It’s one of the first words we learn as a child and one of most recognized syllables across languages. Sometimes it catches a negative reputation but imagine a world without this humble servant of human language. It isn’t a long word, but what it lacks in letters, it often makes up for in punch.

“No, I’d rather not discuss my long-distance carrier.”

“No, I don’t want fries with that.”

“No, a timeshare really doesn’t sound like a good investment.”

 “No” gives a person the power to shape their reality and is often a powerful tool in defining those boundaries that make our personal lives livable. So why is it that many professionals — and especially marketers — struggle to bring this two-letter ally into their working vocabulary?

No” is a non-starter

Marketers are taught from Day One that “No” is verboten – to be used only when combined in a cheerful, “No problem!” (Translation: “A very big problem indeed, but I’ll manage.”) This training becomes second nature, and for many marketers, our first inclination is to say yes immediately and figure out the details later. This is especially prevalent in client-facing interactions, but not uncommon in internal dialogue. In this way, we earn reputations as people who get things done, no matter the strain it puts on our minds and bodies. What is interesting is how often this reluctance to say no often becomes a means of self-preservation.

In today’s A/E/C industry, marketing is essential. Still, it is remarkable how prevalent outdated attitudes are with regard to professional services marketers.  We are “overhead.” We are there to “make things pretty.” We create “fluff” and “collateral.” In almost every case, these labels are not applied maliciously; most of us enjoy our work and are treated well by the industry professionals we work alongside. Yet, those unconscious stereotypes are powerful, and leave marketers with a constant need to demonstrate our value. One of the ways in which we do that is by saying yes to everything, no matter how unfeasible. The first step in learning how and when to say no is letting go of this fear.

Close a door, open a window

I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention the elephant in the room — our firms often do not have the luxury of saying no. Client expectations following the Great Recession rose with the market, and our practice professionals we support are under immense pressure to deliver. Now, as we look down the barrel of more uncertain times, that pressure will only increase. In supporting these individuals, we must be mindful of their own commitments when saying no. In other words, try not to close a door without opening a window.

Communication is everything. In almost every case, “no” shouldn’t be the end of a conversation, but rather a pivot point to reach a solution. By clearly and effectively communicating your needs, ability, and expectations, a solution should be a natural outcome. This process takes both practice and patience on both sides of the table, but done properly, it can lead to great understanding and better end results.

Keep the Ace up Your Sleeve, but Play the Hand You’re Dealt

I will end here by contradicting myself almost entirely — bear with me.

I do believe that the tendency to default to “Yes” is one of the greatest strengths a good marketer can have. The individuals I’ve met in this line of work often boast a laundry list of skills and talents, due in no small part to learning on the fly and making every request a reality. Because of this, many of us enjoy the trust of our peers and our leaders. It takes an enormous amount of gumption and skill to take on every challenge as it comes.

However, this talent can lead to burn out if not equaled by a good understanding of our own limits. Most of us would benefit from learning to say no occasionally.

“No, I don’t believe Wednesday is realistic. Let’s aim for Thursday.”

“No, we don’t have the capacity to do this proposal well. Can we bring in any additional resources?”

“No, I can’t generate this content alone, but I’d be willing to work with you to get it done.”

By saying no when appropriate, we insulate ourselves from extraneous effort that can be focused on more fruitful work. In much the same way a thoughtful Go/No-Go process can improve a firm’s work program, marketers can become more productive and less overwhelmed by selectively pushing back and advocating for themselves. As long as this is done in good faith and with an emphasis on transparency, we can more effectively set realistic expectations and better serve our companies, our teams, and our clients. Counterintuitively, saying no occasionally also allows us to better establish our value. By giving every task our full attention, rather than splitting it infinitely, we can deliver our very best work.

Consider those areas of your work which could benefit from this approach. Are there projects which have been sitting on the back burner for months? Do you often feel overwhelmed at the end of the day because there simply isn’t enough time? I would love to hear your thoughts; drop me a line or leave a comment below.

Feel free to say no.

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  1. Shannon Brush

    Aug. 21, 2020

    James hit the nail on the head. "No" is a non-starter and can be detrimental to an AEC marketer's career (or at least current place of employment). But the wilfulness to recognize the need to find a workable solution communicates so much more. When teams are small and our firm's balance resources, collaborating with our technical partners creates value at a deeper level. The marketer positions themselves to be placed on a more equal footing as the technical peer as their talents and contributions can be experienced throughout the process (rather than with just the end deliverable); relationships are built that create bonds across teams, and the confidence/trust bank receives a deposit for the professional manner in which the challenge was addressed. Nice job James! A blog post worth the read!!!


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