It’s an old truth that you often regret most the things you didn’t do, but the inverse is also true for me. Looking back over ten years of building, running, and eventually selling an agency I find that the times we refused, refrained, or rejected are ultimately some of the decisions I’m most proud of.
Anybody who has ever run a business knows how hard it is to say no to sometimes badly-needed revenue. We needed to make payroll, keep the lights on, and take home a few bucks for ourselves — and all of those things required a steady stream of projects and the checks that came along with them. While we had a chance to work with some truly great people and organizations, we also sometimes fielded inquiries from less savory potential clients.
Sometimes the email came in and you knew right away — that person, that brand, they were notorious bad guys. Other times you had to do a little homework and you’d unearth some skeletons in the closet (one time quite literally). Either way, the moral quandary of being responsible for the livelihood of others slapped you in the face: do we begrudgingly take on this project and pay the bills, or do we stand firm for our values and turn them away?
Depending on the status of our checking accounts and rent bills those early days, this was always the source of great frayed nerves and hand-wringing, but in great credit to our 22-year-old selves, the answer was always no.
Over the years we were approached by union busters, extremist misinformation peddlers, climate deniers, and anti-science conspiracists. I won’t give oxygen to any of their names, but big fat NOPE’s went out the door each time.
Sometimes we regretfully didn’t learn the full story until we started working together. If rejecting potential business hurt, cancelling contracts and losing those dollars hurt even more — but it was always worth the pain. We fired clients when they disrespected our employees, when we discovered unethical business dealings, and when they would ask us to work against our own values and hurt our communities.
Honestly, it always felt great afterwards. Hot shower after a long, gross day great.
Your time here is limited, and the work you produce with that time ultimately becomes, at least in part, a reflection of who you are. Taking the project and donating the profits doesn’t solve the problem. You’re still using your finite existence to make the world worse, and that is a stain that won’t come out easily.
Author and co-founder of Mule Design Mike Monteiro put it best in his 2019 book Ruined By Design, “An object that is designed to harm people cannot be said to be well-designed, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it might be, because to design it well is to design it for harm others. Nothing a totalitarian regime designs is well-designed because it was designed by a totalitarian regime. A broken gun is better designed than a working gun. There is no ethical way to design a wall that keeps refugees from safety. A database that keeps tracks of immigrants for the sake of deportation will always be broken.”
A reputation takes a lifetime to build and a minute to ruin. Only do work you can be proud of and that lifetime becomes a lot more enjoyable.