I’ve been trying to get my foot in the door with a big corporate client who does a ton of major events, including many big product launches, which are right up our alley. I’ve been calling on them for almost two years, and have even been in to pitch them in person. Finally they gave me an event to work on, only its so low end I don’t know if I should take it. It’s a retirement cocktail party for 50 people for a low-level executive, with a budget that is paltry. On the one hand the client says it’s a way to get into the organization. On the other hand, I’m concerned that if accept this job I’ll be pigeon-holed into more small gigs. What should I do?
Confused About My Client
Dear Confused, (OK, the person who emailed this to me signed it with their real name, not “confused”. But it sounds better this way doesn’t it?)
Though you can find people who’ll argue the opposite, my advice is to turn it down. In my 20+ years of running an event company rarely – scratch that, never – have I seen this strategy work. Why? Let’s say you’re the client’s boss and you’re given two companies to choose for a major product launch: a company that focuses mainly on product launches and other similar events, and a company that did a kick-ass job on the retirement party of some VP. If you’re job is on the line, would you hire you? No way. The safe bet is the other firm.
Here’s another analogy. Let’s say you do get the job and you need to hire a caterer. Would you pick a vendor who’s done a ton of product launches, or someone who catered your office holiday party, but gosh-darn-it he wants to work his way in. Or let’s say you’re being sued for $5 million by a client who claims his VIP guests got food poisoning at your event. Do you bring in a ringer who defends these cases routinely, or hire an aggressive attorney who really wants your business and successfully argued a parking ticket for you? You get the point.
But wait! Confused says she too is a ringer in product launches! Surely the client’s boss will see that, and appreciate how Confused did that VP’s retirement party as a good faith gesture, right? Sorry, not right. Unfortunately, simply taking on that much smaller event lowers your stature in the client’s eyes. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.
Now, once you’re in and have done the big product launches, if they then ask you to do the retirement event, you can take it on and it won’t hurt you. But as your calling card for moving up, it’s a tough sell. You get branded as the small job vendor, and you’re far more likely to get requests for more of the same. Then what?
I remember years ago I took on a high profile fundraiser for a new client’s non-profit for next to no money. The client was a well-connected Park Avenue socialite, and she swore she would introduce me to her friends. And she did. You know what they said? “I hear you gave Penny a great deal. I want the same thing.”
It can be done, and I’m sure I’ll get my share of readers who will argue the point with me. But by and large, the odds are not in your favor. If it really kills you to walk away from this opportunity, here’s what I would suggest.
1. Bump up your fees by at least 30%.
2. Then, in the proposal or contract, type in a line showing a discount for that exact amount. Write something like, “Special discount in exchange for allowing our firm to bid on your next product launch.” Then you’re at least spelling out your quid pro quo: I’m doing this event SOLELY to get a chance to bid on this other bigger event. Hey, it’s the truth isn’t it? They’re obliged now to allow you to bid on their next launch event. Mind you, they’re under no obligation to hire you; just to give you a chance to bid on the kind of work you want.
3. And if for some reason they push back, that’s your cue to run for the hills.
In America we’re all enamored with the narrative of the kid from the mailroom working his way up the ladder to be CEO. That may have worked 50 years ago, but it’s a non-starter today. Mailroom Johnny has no chance against a college grad with an MBA in today’s business world.
I know, it feels so un-American. It’s like stomping on the Little Engine That Could. But it’s not personal, it’s just business. Tell your client/prospect that, “as much as we’d love to work with you, we’d rather wait for the right project. Perhaps (insert name of your biggest competitor-let them be the sucker) might be interested in this smaller event?”