“Most agencies are in the same boat — from big ones to two man shops. They’re in it for the money and they’re scared. Scared the client’s going to walk. And because they are afraid they compromise their principles. They are so scared of losing the business they give the customer what they think they want rather than what they know he needs. And sometimes it works — for a while. But in the end it always backfires. You lose the business anyway and you wake up one day to find you’re a prostitute. So, in the end, stick to your principles. ‘to thine ownself be true.’ 0ver 200 years old but still good advice.”

Stephen Hawley Martin (founder of The Martin Agency)


Well. The opening quote is some delightfully uncomfortable candor from a business person. That said. Choosing what to do and choosing what not to do is a shitload more difficult than you may think – in business and in Life.

I will say if you are in the service industry you will read this and understand exactly what Mr. Martin is saying especially in a business world in which customer-centric is the ideology tied to ‘make the customer happy’ attitudes.  Yeah. When in service business you are always seemingly trapped by “doing whatever it takes to make the customer happy” (which seems to be an insane mantra seeping through business these days) versus “what is going to make me happy” (as a business, business person, business owner).

Here’s the truth. This is not an easy answer. Yeah. You would think it is and we can say it is, but it is not.

Look. I am certainly not suggesting ignoring customers (although I do believe the tired “customer is king/queen” mantra is going a little bit too far), but at some point you have to draw a line. I could suggest if you don’t draw a line you will have simply entered a race to the bottom (because you are not the only one trying to make that customer king/queen so you are competing with everyone and most likely not increasing price – so your value equation is becoming of less value if not less profitable).

But instead of the business case I will suggest that you need to draw a line or you will go nuts.


Become a prostitute.


Sometimes lines can fence you in, but sometimes lines can neaten life.

I will suggest someone who draws a great line yet is focused on the customer. Ritz Carlton.

“Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentleman.”

You see that everywhere in the back rooms and over back-to-front entryways at Ritz Carltons. It is their culture and their attitude and their mantra.


What is the line? The moment a Ritz guest no longer acts like a ‘ladies or gentleman.’  That is their line.


I imagine drawing a line is about making boundaries. I will suggest that setting boundaries does more to define us rather than define behavior. I will also suggest it is probably one of the hardest things in the world to do. With anything I may add.

In business?


I have been in those meetings.

Especially now with the internet where one ‘declined’ customer (they don’t even have to be mistreated in any way) can reach out and impact hundreds because they weren’t allowed to join the club. Those discussions are painful and often driven by knee jerk reactions <to a minority of one>. I understand that this is about growing your business <or maybe … stopping it from declining> and at almost any time in business, good or bad, passing on a dollar in hand is tough. But at some point you have to step back and say “what does keeping this customer say about us, me, and the business?


It is about drawing a line in the sand about what is acceptable or not acceptable – to us, our character and how we want to be defined.

Think about government. Regardless of whether it is government policy on dealing with terrorists or rules of warfare.

What is acceptable and what isn’t? Tough tough questions.


Personal time off in a business. Your kids and their activities. Job searches and type of job you want. Time commitments. Personal behavior.


Where do you draw the line?

I know I struggle with people who want it all spelled out upfront (or maybe people who live only by ‘rules’). Mostly because you invest a lot of energy and time thinking about every possibility (which could be time doing more productive things) and then lo and behold something you couldn’t have foreseen pops up. And you start discussing ‘exceptions’ (which really aren’t exceptions other than the fact someone demanded you draw a line … or a boundary). And then there are the ongoing situations where you have to think about where does it fall on the line you have drawn.

Some things are black and white, but they seem to be far and few between. Most often I don’t even like getting close to a boundary and do not feel comfortable with people who do like to wander on lines.As Mike Walsh said “your legal team will never get you to the best ethical decision.”

That said.

The one thing that remains black & white?

Being true to thineself.

Draw the line somewhere where you can sleep well at night.

That’s the line. Ponder.

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Written by Bruce