Client School: Don’t be so coy about budget

Even if you don’t think you have a budget, you have a budget

Credit: Giorgio Trovato via Unsplash

A few years ago I was chatting with a commercial printer we used to do a lot of business with, and I asked him what the minimum run was on a piece we were designing. His answer:

“One. We can’t print less than one.”

While that unexpected bluntness cracked me up, it also reminded me of a conversation I had every week with prospective clients of our agency — and the lack of direct answers I got from them.

At some point in the back half of our new business introduction call, I would also trot out the most important question for determining if the project was actually feasible: what is your budget and what is your schedule?

Every time I asked those in the same breath, the deadline was the first answer I got. And usually, that response was a joking “yesterday” or some other hyperbole.

After pressing through, the answers I would receive on the budget question were one of three forms:

  • An actual number, or at least a range (A miracle response!)
  • A verbal form of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (This either not knowing or not “having” was the most common.)
  • A question in return — “what would it cost?” (Trying to feel us out first.)

For those latter two choices, look I get it. You don’t want to spend more than you have to, and you fear that a greedy contractor will see your budget and milk you for every dollar. Or, maybe you are too early in the planning process to have a number. The agency sells service X every day, but you don’t buy it every day, maybe you have no idea what it should cost!

Even if you earnestly think you don’t have a budget, you’re mistaken.

Here’s how I know: imagine you were presented with three contract options, let’s say at $5,000, $50,000, and $500,000. Instinctively, you’ll immediately know which one is closest to your “unknown” budget. None of these numbers will likely be the right answer, but they will help narrow your thinking — and help the agency build a proposal that is in the same universe as your expectations.

The truth about creative work is that for almost any service you can often find somebody at each of those price points that will get the job done, and be worth it! (And you can find somebody to put up a website for $50 or $5,000,000 if you really wanted to.) But understanding, and sharing with your prospective partners, where you fall in terms of order of magnitude will save everybody time and result in better work.

Client School is an irregular series where I occasionally share some tips for clients now that I’ve sold my agency and can spill the beans. Check out my first installment, about responding to proposals, here. I can be found on Twitter or at

BTW: Twice a week I send out an email with, well, something interesting to check out. Sign up for free on Substack.



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