Digital marketing is complex. It’s also loaded with misinformation. That makes it hard to manage expectations, to maintain a position and to navigate competing agendas. In order to do so, from time to time it becomes necessary to say no. One syllable. Two letters. And yet it’s something that people in our industry hate to do. Many have a natural tendency to avoid conflict. Others are simply scared to deny a request for fear of ruining and endangering a relationship. But a successful career in digital strategy will mean learning not only when to say no, but how to do so.
This is not an invitation to say no at every opportunity. I have worked with people who seemed to delight from being contrarian, whose automatic reaction was to be skeptical to any idea or suggestion, and who seemed to revel in every problem in order to prove their superiority. People get tired of being around those types of individuals, no matter how smart, since they come to be seen as obstacles who are only out for themselves.
But it is a core responsibility of the digital strategist to see beyond the immediate problem or need and chart a holistic path. In doing so, it is possible to see when a request or recommendation is likely to result in an unexpected issue down the line. I would argue that the strategist is uniquely positioned to do this, so it is important to be the person to carry the message.
So to recap, if a request has been made that an action be taken that creates issues with the overall strategy or interferes with achieving objectives, it is the responsibility of the strategist to say no.
How do you do so in a way that helps keep everyone aligned and the client on side? First, understand the cause of the request. Often there is a new business imperative or pressure. There might be new individuals or ideas being put forward. The cause of the request is important to understand because it determines how best to proceed. If it is new pressure on the business, then it is time to take a fresh look at the strategy you have put together and determine if that strategy, with the accompanying objectives still apply. At this point it might not be necessary to say no, but rather to recalibrate the strategy to reflect this new reality.
If this is a matter of a new client or a new idea being introduced that clashes with the governing strategy, then it is important to say no. Doing so is pretty straightforward. Reference the agreed upon objectives and strategy and highlight how the request is at odds with them. Then immediately take the opportunity to ask for the rationale behind the request. This gives the client the opportunity to explain themselves and ensures that they are heard. Once you have listened to their perspective, explain why they are wrong. Provide them with the data to support your position, not only that they are wrong, but why you are right. If at this point they still insist that you make the change, map out for them the implications of the change in direction. Will results suffer? Will costs rise? But here’s the key…Give them alternatives. It is the absence of alternatives that leads people to dig in their heels and become unreasonable.
Finally, what happens if you say no, if you lay out the implications of the change, if you provide alternatives and they still insist on the change? Well, at this point, you have almost fulfilled your responsibility as the strategist. The final responsibility is how you react when the change is implemented and things go as poorly as you said. It is easy to say ‘I told you so’ or to be smug. Avoid these things at all costs. Rather, keep a close eye on developments and ring the alarm early when things start to go south. Make sure that when you do so, you focus on how to get things back on track. Specifically, highlight ideas that are proactive and progressive and focused exclusively on how to move forward.
This experience and how you handle it, focusing dispassionately on the objective and on making the work better is how you will build trust and authority over time, and how you will inspire people to want to work with you and listen to your perspective. Saying no at the right time, and in the right way is the best way to get to yes the next time you have an idea.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.