When should I turn work away?

Onespacemedia’s Thomas Rumbold describes that knowing when to turn away work is an important part of growing a business - and staying committed to excellence.

Onespacemedia’s Thomas Rumbold describes that knowing when to turn away work is an important part of growing a business - and staying committed to excellence

The digital industry is exciting. It’s a dynamic, creative, innovative space packed with talented people with big ideas - and that’s magnified enormously when you work somewhere like Cambridge - a city that has turned out some of the most innovative companies and technologies in history. It’s home to big vision, huge money, and of course, the thing that naturally follows - massive competition. It’s a high octane race to solve complicated creative problems for giants that often go on to create entire markets.

For smaller businesses, being able to land the occasional whale plays a large part in being able to grow the operation without the risk involved with taking on loans. Often, project requirements are more complex, there are more stakeholders and more ‘moving parts’ - which means that the budgets are larger. Among other things, big cash injections can often give a welcome boost to recruitment efforts, investment in the premises, or simply allowing some breathing space - the luxury of being able to cherry pick the work that interests the team the most.

A second, and equally important angle when landing bigger contracts is that of the long tail. What are the further opportunities, if any? What new work might present itself as a result of a good relationship with a titan of industry? How much is that worth fiscally, and for the company’s position within the regional, or even global digital space? It’s so easy to become blinded by the size of the payday and the glitz of the association with the sector’s major players. Everyone wants to be the agency to the stars, right?

Committing to quality

But of course, back in the real world of payroll, employee satisfaction, quality, integrity - being considered for the huge jobs has other implications, too. It’s not enough to bid for the work and resign to working out the details later if you’re committed to driving the sort of quality that makes your team proud of everything that leaves the building. The part of our process that really gets minds working is working out how together, we can deliver the best product possible. How do we marry our professional practice with a client’s forward strategy? What will make this a successful project? How can this thing be awesome? You can’t get to any of those answers if the demands on your resources are too large to manage properly.

So when one of these giant opportunities recently presented itself, it took a lot of soul searching, number crunching and a healthy dose of realism for us to come to the pretty horrible conclusion that it just wasn’t going to work out. This time, we just couldn’t take on this national client. We couldn’t capitalise on the opportunity to inject a hefty sum of cash into the business. And we couldn’t do it because we couldn’t guarantee that we’d be able to deliver the quality that we insist on with our current setup. Before we made our decision, we came up with a checklist of things that we needed to consider thoroughly, and I’ve included it below.


The financials really covered cost of sales and revenue - but were mostly factored down to:

  • How much has it cost to bid on this work? What is the total cost of sales - can it be recouped without affecting cash flow too seriously?
  • What is the project’s total budget - and how does that line up with our current yearly projection?

Our people

How would our team be affected by such a large commitment? What can we give to the project?

  • Who here needs to be involved?
  • What are their current client commitments, and for how long?
  • Can we dedicate a certain number of people to serve this client exclusively?
  • Could we hire high quality, quickly enough to meet new demands on our output?
  • What if a member of our production team leaves during the work? Is that a showstopper?

Their people

Who are their team - what are their roles and responsibilities?

  • What does their team look like?
  • How many stakeholders are there?
  • Do we have access to the big decision makers - the people with the authority to prevent expensive project bottlenecks?

Deliverable size

What needs to be delivered? How does it compare to our largest, most complicated projects to date?

  • Realistically, what is the actual deliverable?
  • How many man-hours is it going to take to not only complete it - but to smash this thing out of the park?


How long should the work take?

  • What do the timescales involved look like? 
  • Are they possible - if not, are they flexible?

Risk of failure

If the project tanks, where does that leave us?

  • If, in some gargantuan feat of gantt based wizardry we can bend heaven and earth to take on the client, what happens if we shift all of our central priorities - and then they bail half way through? Can we claw back from a failure of that size?

Ultimately though, our decision to turn away the work came down to respect for all of the things that are central to our business. I’m well aware that all that really sounds like is some ‘We’re not bitter, honestly guv!’ rhetoric - so I’ll explain what I mean. Condensed, these are the things that ultimately made our decision for us - and might go some way towards influencing yours.

Respect for our existing clients

Our ongoing relationships with our existing clients are the foundation of Onespacemedia. Putting our clients in second place to a new golden paycheck goes directly against the ethos of our business. It would be a disservice to the partnerships that we’ve spent our time building, and hope to take far into the future. Our agreements are as ethical as they are contractual - our commitment to quality has to stand, regardless of any new arrangements we forge in the meantime.

Respect for our new client

If we’re in the position where we’re under stress and straining under the demands of a new client, it’s simply because the operation in its current form isn’t set up to deal with that sort of relationship yet. We wouldn’t be doing our best work. The client shouldn’t have to inherit that problem - they don’t deserve worse work because the we can’t serve their needs properly.

Respect for the quality of our output

Doing more with less means something’s got to give. It became clear that it would be impossible to hold ourselves to the standards that we insist on if our team and our time were stretched paper thin. We’re traditionalists - very much from the school of ‘less, high quality product’ than ‘more, low quality product’. It just doesn’t work and it doesn’t resonate here.

Respect for our staff

Our culture is driven by our people, as the best workplaces always are. Make no mistake, pub lunch or not, we work hard - but a really important part of being on staff here is being respected as both a professional and as a person in equal measure. Stretching people’s skills and schedules to the point of unbearable stress just doesn’t fit into the business that we’re building. It’s not how you get the best out of anybody - especially creatives - and it’s not how you build great things.

Reflecting on those things, turning down the job wasn’t quite as gut wrenching as it initially seemed. And since then, we’ve been looking at it pretty philosophically. It’s all part of the journey. Next time, we’ll be ready.


Check out our related news

  • Becoming a designer: How to start a career in web design

    6 min read

  • Becoming a designer - stepping up to the plate

    7 min read

  • Digital predictions 2018

    6 min read

  • Key digital tools for small businesses

    4 min read