This Isn't a Breakup, It's Business. A Love Letter to Rejection

TL:DR, let's start telling each other the why's behind our no's. In a nice way

On a typical work day, we make dozens of decisions. Whether to choose Vendor A or B. Whether to partner with Agency Y or hire a handful of new employees instead. The likely outcome of every decision is one yes and multiple no's, which means we're saying no more times per day than we can count.

As a creative agency, we're on the other end all the time too, waiting for a yes or no: when we submit a proposal or respond to an RFP, send an offer to a new potential team member—the world is filled with companies and people trying to find each other.

And frequently, we just never hear back. An email immediately archived, a task crossed off the to-do list. How often do we take the time to tell the people we say no to why?

How often do we take the time to gently but directly address why they weren't chosen for the project, the role, the promotion? It's so much easier to write a cordial, brief email saying the stakeholders need more time, or ignore them altogether. And if a "no" is offered, it's almost always general, "We've chosen someone else, thanks for your time."

Our fear of giving or receiving direct rejection is a glaring inefficiency in the corporate world today. There's a sea of companies and people trying to find their product-market fit, and a group of gatekeepers who never bother to offer the ultra-valuable, candid feedback that would help them improve.

Imagine how useful candid feedback could be—

if we took just two minutes every time we say "no" to offer a "why."

  • We ended up choosing an agency that has more category experience and could offer 24/7 community management.

This is immediately useful to me: Our agency doesn't offer community management at all, so we could never compete there. And we consider our lack of heavy specialization in any one specific category to be a feature, allowing us to see any brand from a casual consumer's perspective. This feedback immediately tells me that my agency wasn't a fit for this project, and that's good to know. (It wasn't the creative!)

  • The candidate we ended up choosing for the role brings a new perspective to the company based on their strategy background, and their presentation skills really blew us away.

If the candidate focuses on areas other than strategy, and they're still working on presentation skills, this feedback could help them understand they weren't a fit for the role based on background but could also improve their presentation skills for a better chance next time.

The average ad agency pitches eight times for every one win. Sure, this is a generalized stat and more geared toward big pitches—I know our win rate is much higher, but all this is to say that we'll probably lose just as often, or more often, than we win. So that means we'll have copious opportunities to hear feedback that can help us improve. (Any reason to reframe a pitch loss as a ~learning opportunity~ and make it suck less, I'm on board.)

It's not about right or wrong. It's about fit.

Framing the decisions as "right" or "wrong" makes "wrong" feel like a loss. But what we're really saying when we reject someone at work is they weren't the right fit.

A size 8 shoe isn't inherently wrong or bad. It just won't work for me, because I have insanely small feet. It's the perfect choice for my friend whose feet are a tad larger—the same is true for job applicants and agencies. A highly specialized 15-person agency like January Third is probably not a good fit for a $25 million retainer account that needs a team of 32 at 80 percent bandwidth.

The exception to this rule? Cold outreach emails. If you haven't started a conversation, in my mind you have no obligation to respond.

How to return the wrong shoe size?

The person, or the company, isn't wrong. They're just wrong for you. Just like that too-big pair of killer platform heels that look gorgeous and make you trip every four steps.

  1. Frame it around fit. If you're saying no to someone, try to frame it around the fit you're looking for and the gaps between that person/company and the ideal fit.
    "The right agency will have a team of SEO specialists in-house. Your team seems to be more focused on media strategy and planning for integrated campaigns, but since we are running an SEO-specific campaign, we went with a specialist."
  2. Is there something else they'd be a better fit for? Maybe this person isn't the right photographer for an upcoming campaign but they might do well on a future campaign with a client who's more amenable to their image licensing terms. Or the agency that's not right for a giant account might be perfect for a smaller, more innovation-driven project.
    "Your company is not the right fit for this project, but we have another project coming up that we'd love to consider you for. Can we reconnect in Q3 to talk further about the new project?"
  3. Just be honest, mostly. It's OK if it isn't super pleasant to hear it. It still helps us get better, even if it stings a bit.
    "We're looking for a candidate with a stronger conceptual copywriting skills for this role. You have a great start, and when you feel that your portfolio is stronger in this area, please do reach back out."

If we took a minute to share why, each time we say no, we might just find that the pool of folks to choose from gets better and better, every single time.

OK, we're giving candid feedback now. How could I have made this article better? What's missing?

Profile picture for user Maggie Winters Gaudaen
Maggie Winters Gaudaen
Maggie Winters Gaudaen is partner and creative director at January Third.

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