Tom O’Keefe, CEO, O’Keefe, Reinhard & Paul

2013 was the year I learned to love the word “no.”  So much is said about its counterpart, “yes,” with all of its affirmative can-do-it-ness, but I’m here to say that “no” is the new “yes.” And if you find yourself running a start-up, you’ll quickly realize the direct correlation between your survival and your ability to sling the word “no” early, often, and fast – like a veteran Vegas dealer dousing a once hot table with cold cards.

We’ve learned this: the key to running a start-up is prioritization and the key to prioritization is knowing when to say “no.”  Every day, we’re faced with a deluge of questions, challenges, and opportunities – only we don’t know which is what.  Our job is to quickly get through all of the no’s in time to find the one or two yes’s that might make a difference.  To do this, we have to project how each scenario might play out – a Rube Goldberg-like analysis of twists, turns, and domino falls that ultimately put us in front of one of two doors: “waste of time” or “worth the exercise”.  Our livelihood depends on picking the right one.  We have to do this in a matter of nanoseconds, a hundred times a day.

To help, we developed a hard-and-fast rule to live by:
  – clients come first
     – new business is next
     – the business of “us” is third

All yes’s and no’s work accordingly. While it’s easy to think that the obvious answer to client business is to say, “yes” to everything, I’d argue that one of our heaviest responsibilities is knowing when to say, “no” – not just to clients, but on their behalf.  Clients want agencies that are liberal with their ability to reject ideas, resources, and directions that will ultimately waste their time and money.  With deadline and budget screws tightening every day, they need us to act fast, make decisions in a shorthand way, and still deliver the creative goods.  They’re looking for a few good no’s.

With new business, our questions are these: “does this prospect feel like the right fit for us creatively and culturally?  Will it help us build the agency’s profile and allow us to bring in new talent who will make us better?  Or are we chasing a rabbit down a hole?”

Saying “no” to new business is like saying “no” to your kids – it hurts you more than it does them, but if you don’t say it now the teenage years will be a disaster.

Now, I hear my friends with improvisational comedy backgrounds cringing.  The Second City alums who make up a big part of our creative team are all about the power of “yes, and …”  Instead of shutting down an idea, they politely steer it in another direction with a positive “and…”  So, using the Second City philosophy, I’ll close by saying “yes, and if you really want to move your agency in the right direction you have to start saying no.”

Sorry guys, I couldn’t help myself.