Sometimes, you just have to say “no” – even if it feels horrible to do it

Fyre Festival

I finally got around to watching the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, do – especially if you’ve ever been involved in project management, marketing a product you’re not 100% sure about, or you’ve been told off for being “negative” when you think you’re raising legitimate flags.

The documentary isn’t really about Billy McFarland – the now imprisoned CEO of Fyre Media Inc. Instead, it’s more of a blow-by-blow account from the point of view of the creative agencies, project management consultants and fixers who were employed to make the Fyre Festival reality.

It’s a case study in how not to do it. And what blows your mind as you watch is they all just keep going. As the documentary portrays it, the agencies began to feel things weren’t quite right fairly early on. The island wasn’t available. There was alarmed commentary coming from the events management community. Fyre was selling more luxury accommodation than the site could accommodate…

But the investment for the festival kept rolling in, and they kept going.

Even when the whole thing is crumbling around them and there are only days left until the festival is supposed to happen, they still don’t stop. A middle-aged fixer agrees when McFarland tells him to offer sexual favours to import water to the island. The social media crew keeps re-running months’ old supermodel promotion images while the reality of it all looks more like a refugee camp.

It’s mind-boggling. What would it have cost these agencies to have jumped off the bus months earlier? A few hundred grand in the bank, maybe. But you have to wonder if by the end, any of them thought it had been worth it.

In Wordtree’s 10-year history, I’ve said “no” twice when a project was in its early days. Once was for a tone of voice and training project. Everything we suggested was over-ridden. The project leads wanted us to use a process we didn’t recognise, and didn’t think could work. So we politely suggested another agency might be a better fit.

The other time was creating a campaign that involved working alongside several other third parties, all of whom – we felt – were spending more time vying for the top-dog position in the project than actually getting on with the job in hand. We tried. We did quite a bit of work, and it all got lost in the inter-agency politics. So we made a call and politely suggested another agency might be a better fit.

They weren’t easy decisions. Each one left us out of pocket. Both times we knew we’d probably never work with that client again (we were right about that with one client, not with the other). And each time, I spent days agonising over whether I’d done the right thing.

But I think sometimes you just have to make those calls. You have to recognise either when a project is being so badly run, or has been so badly conceived that you can’t possibly make it work. That, or you have to recognise when you’re not the best fit.

Wordtree is too small – and too focused on the work – to get involved in willy-waving contests with ginormous multi-disciplinary agencies. We’ve collaborated very successfully with agencies on some projects for our clients. But we’re not going to run ourselves ragged simply to have our opinions heard or our work acknowledged. If a project isn’t about the work, it’s probably not one for us.

And for things like tone of voice and brand – our approach is always bespoke and created around the people in an organisation. This is how we know we can make things work – by getting teams involved and on side and creating brand and brand assets that they can buy into. In our experience, people willingly buy into change when they’re a part of the process. They don’t when change is simply done to them.

We’ve had our fair share of experience of picking up projects that others have started, but not quite succeeded at. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. So however much we want to work with a particular brand or client, if they insist on a process that we’ve seen fail before and think will fail again… we have to politely decline and get off the bus.

Sometimes, however horrible it makes you feel, however much you question yourself after the fact, you just have to say “no” and move on.