How (not) to tell someone you can't afford it

Ian Lurie

For every fantastic client we land at Portent, we talk to:

  • 30-40 we like but can’t work with for one reason or another;
  • 10-20 who make us a little nervous;
  • 5-10 who we like, but are in industries we just won’t represent;
  • 1-2 people who make me want to retire and open a combination gaming store/bicycle shop.

I’m not suggesting that internet marketing agencies are blameless in the creation of sales nightmares. Don’t worry, all you clients. I’ll be writing about horrible proposal faux pas next.

The accidental insulter (AI) aka the a—hat

“It doesn’t look like you’ll be doing much work.” Said to me today by a potential client.

Right now, she’s reading this and feeling terribly insulted. She’d likely mumble “I didn’t mean it that way!”

I’d reply, “You are the CEO of a company, and you don’t realize how totally insulting that sounds? Wow. Do you pinch your employees’ asses and then tell them it was a team-building exercise?”

Don’t insult my intelligence. You knew exactly how that would sound. Someone pooped in your Cornflakes this morning and you decided to take it out on me when you realized that your business selling personalized soybeans isn’t going to make it.

My response. I babbled about the analysis we put in to each recommendation and report, blah blah blah while I saw spots from an anger-inspired surge in blood pressure and gripped my desk so tightly I left fingerprints in the wood.

Better alternatives. “Can you explain what you’ll be doing in more detail?” or even “Ian, are you insane?” or, God forbid, “I can’t afford it.”

The guilt-driven bargainer (GDB)

“I just can’t justify the expense…” [Trailing off into silence].

This after I’ve put in the time to do an opportunity gap analysis that shows, to the penny, what the campaign is worth.

I’m sure he’s expecting me to jump in with something like “Oh! Don’t worry! I’m running a welfare organization! I’ll make sure you get all the help you need to grow your company by $1 million, for free.”

My response. Silence. What did you expect?

Better alternatives. “Is there any way we can make this cost less?” or “I only have $x — anything we can do for that?” or, even better, “I can’t afford it.”

The psycho sycophant (PS)

“I reallllly want to work with you you guys are sooooo smart I just don’t have any moneeeyyyy right now because my last SEO quit when I couldn’t pay them for a year and my developer hates meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…”

Unfortunately, I can’t live on flattery. Plus, everyone you’ve ever worked with has united in a world-ending conspiracy against you. It could be they’re going to kill everyone who tries to help you, because you’re going to save the world from invasion by their alien overlords. Or, it could be you’re a pathological liar who’s going to stiff me the first chance you get.

My response. [Avoiding eye contact] Well, uh, that’s great. I’ll send you a proposal. No, no, don’t worry, I’ve got your e-mail address, you don’t need mine.

Better alternatives. “I had some disagreements with my last internet marketer/SEO. He hates me. But I learned. Now, I have a budget of $nn. What can you do for me?” or, of course, “I can’t afford it.”

Butthead bingo (BB)

“I ran this by the CFO, and the CMO, and the CEO. They think the roll rate isn’t high enough given our financials. They’d like to see a cost/benefit analysis to show the synergies between effort-to-asset ratios and man-hours. Also, I need you to show us four years’ financials, an hour-by-hour accounting of everything you’ll do on this project, and sign this paper promising you won’t leave the state.”

I think this is usually just an attempt to make me go away. I can’t think why else someone would talk like this. Some weird form of foreign accent syndrome?

My response. No problem. Let me get my 40-person legal team and contracts department right on that.

Better alternatives. “My boss will never go for this”, or, NO WAIT IT’S A SURPRISE, “We can’t afford it.”

Just say it

There is a point to this entire rant: Just tell your agency the truth! If you can’t afford it, say so. If you don’t want to pay for it, just say so.

But don’t try to hide behind passive-aggressive accusations, ridiculous lingo or veiled insults. That’s not smart business. It’s poor business, and it’s disrespectful.

If you have a budget, just say it. A good marketer will deliver value for your $.

If you can’t afford it, just say it. You won’t hurt my feelings. And we’ll always try to figure out a way to make it work.

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Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. It never fails to amaze me when a large and profitable company calls because they desperately need better internet marketing, makes us jump through all sorts of hoops beyond the initial analysis and proposal, then turns around and says they are going to buy a larger newspaper ad every week instead because it costs less. Um… yeah… right. Did you see the cost and ROI comparisons between your current marketing and our proposal?
    Some “accidental insulters” are just clueless as to what they think they are hiring you to do, especially in SEO where they have been fed all kinds of bullsh*t and can’t unlearn it.
    “Can you do the keyword research and call me back in about 15 minutes?”

  2. Ugh…When are we all going to learn the steps to this dance? I used to work on a retail sales floor where I would sometimes hear a fellow salesperson ask a customer, “How much would you like to spend?” I was always eagerly awaiting a customer to provide the perfectly obvious answer: “Zero. I’d like to spend nothing to own this product.” They wouldn’t of course. Instead, there was the clumsy fumbling that results from the ignorance of the client as to what unfamiliar products/services cost, and the incentive of the seller to get the most out of the client’s wallet. Often I wish more businesses set up pricing like a restaurant. If not specific prices for specific services, at least realistic prices ranges accompanying fairly detailed descriptions. I think it would benefit both parties – the clients could determine painlessly if they could possibly afford the service; the business owner would know that anyone who submitted a deeper inquiry had already pre-qualified themselves as able and potential willing to pay the price.

  3. Ha! Love this article!
    Is it a coincidence that you wrote this article after I said it sounded like a blog post on Twitter? Probably so, but I’ll just pretend that you wrote it ‘cuz I asked nice 😉

  4. I don’t know, Ian.
    I drew caricatures for a living throughout my 20’s. My favorite insults were: “What’s your full-time job?” and “Do you also do REAL art?”
    I understand that these moments are annoying. But that’s the cost of doing business with someone who doesn’t understand what you do.
    “It doesn’t look like you’ll be doing much work?” Sounds pretty honest to me! “I can’t justify the expense?” We’re in sales, we need to find a way to build value on our product so it means something to him. charts and numbers only work on the nerds.
    It might be dangerous to rant about clients this way. No one wants to go into a meeting worried that they’re going to say the wrong thing and get blasted.

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