Why Failure is Great! [Unless You’re In Marketing]

I heard a radio segment about start-up culture in Silicon Valley that described how entrepreneurs there wear business failures like badges of honor. Rather than hiding a failed venture, they celebrate it as a stepping-stone to the next big thing. It actually gives them more cred with investors.

Since I don’t live in California or work in tech, I wonder how these ideas apply to me: a creative marketing professional on the East coast. I’ve heard conference speakers exalt the freedom to fail and plenty of business books put a premium on failure as well. It’s an optimistic outlook: just go for broke and a mighty phoenix will rise from the ashes of your mistakes, ultimately manifesting as THE next big idea.

I hear it. I do. And it makes sense intuitively. If nothing else, failure fulfills the crucial function of erasing our fear of failure. It happened, we failed, and life didn’t end. Knowing this, we have the courage to dare and to take risks again.

As a business owner, I want to create an environment where we dream big, take risks and, occasionally, fail. In my heart, I believe in this vision. That’s why I’ve been thinking so hard about how this concept applies to a marketing agency and a small business. Do we have room to fail?

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The Costs of Failure

There are two types of failure for a marketing firm: internal and external. In a small business like ours, internal failure is acutely felt. Time, people and money dedicated to the [ultimately failed] initiative come at the expense of other items on our endless to-do list. Failure also erodes morale. No matter how safe the environment, people feel badly when they fall short of goals. Everything feels especially personal in a small company and tiny missteps can do big damage to our reputation. The financial fallout can also be devastating, especially if it leads to the loss of a client or a missed opportunity.

Externally, the stakes for our clients are also huge. When bootstrapping start-up social enterprises invest limited resources in a single campaign, there is no room for failure. It’s little consolation to a company’s founders to hear that the budget they scraped together went to a great failed experiment but fantastic lessons were learned by all to be applied enthusiastically to the next campaign. Yeah…

It’s little consolation to a company’s founders to hear that the budget they scraped together went to a great failed experiment but fantastic lessons were learned by all to be applied enthusiastically to the next campaign.

Furthermore, clients ultimately pay us because they want to mitigate risk. If they weren’t trying to avoid failure, they might do the work using in-house staff without particular expertise in mission alignment, customer retention and branding. Sometimes, they try that and fail and then turn to an agency for help.

I see my job as two-fold. Not only do I set out to achieve campaign objectives, I aim to make every client look good to his/her customers, investors and supervisors. If I do my job well, we achieve a greater good through the campaign and a smaller good too: a career boost for the person I’m working with. With these goals in mind, how can I accept failure as valid outcome? Still, everyone points to how important it is. How do I reconcile the risk inherent in innovation with the results my clients expect (and deserve) from me?

Finding A Safe [Enough] Middle Ground

My boss at a previous job had this answer: we always gave a client three options when presenting campaign concepts. Solution 1 was very safe – often exactly what the client asked for. Solution 2 was middle of the road. Solution 3 was cutting edge. He said we should be scared to present it. If presenting it didn’t give you major butterflies, you hadn’t gone far enough. The key was to present Solution 1 – the safe solution – last. This approach pretty much guaranteed it wouldn’t be picked so we wouldn’t be stuck doing boring work. My boss was right about that thanks to the science of anchoring. As owner of a small creative firm, he found a way to hedge the risks while pushing his team to stretch their creative muscles. Still, we usually ended up executing the middle-of-the-road solution which, after awhile, was fairly discouraging for us creative folk.

No client I’ve ever met wants to admit to playing it safe, even the most conservative.

When Anne and I founded RoundPeg, we did away with the safe option. No client I’ve ever met wants to admit to playing it safe, even the most conservative. In fact, it tends to skew the other way – a client claims they want a cutting-edge campaign but what gets approved and built is much more tame because they’re afraid to fail. They’re scared of taking risks and pushing limits. The trick is to figure out early on how risk-averse a specific client is so we know how far to push our team and the solutions we offer.

The Big Secret

It seems like for a small marketing firm, there is no room for failure as such. After all, clients are paying good money to prevent it. I think that in truth, failure happens all the time in marketing. What’s more, the companies footing the bill don’t even know it. They never find out.  Here’s what happens:

Disingenuous marketers love data because it’s so easy to manipulate. They’ll cite numbers to make results seem significant– so many clicks, so many tweets, so many impressions, so many site visits – so many numbers. It doesn’t matter if the numbers correspond to what matters or to real change.

Do you invest time and resources in tracking your impact to determine if anything is really different? How many people changed their behavior because of your campaign? How many people opened their wallet? How many people told their friends about your product or your mission? How many people fell in love with your brand and what you do? If clients – and their marketing partners – don’t invest in measuring what matters, they often settle for big numbers that don’t mean much of anything and call it a success.

It seems like in marketing, more companies are willing to accept empty semi-successes than are willing to shoot for the moon and risk real failure. I understand how they feel but I’m still hoping for a client to ask me to do something so cutting edge that it might really fail. I’m betting if I’m ever lucky enough to get this call it will be from a B Corp or other social enterprise.

So here’s my number – call me maybe?


As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..
  • Jim Bowes

    What is deemed as failure? What is success?
    When marketing comes down to something that has to be measurable, we are only making matters worse. You simply can not measure the full effects of your marketing efforts.
    B Corps and purposeful companies are “succeeding” in great part because business success is not measured by revenue and profit alone. Finally we are adopting models that look at a much wider criteria to judge success.
    The marketing industry is using models that quite frankly are outdated and often self serving.
    This is why our industry needs to innovate new marketing models. Not only do they not work very well as they are now but they don’t fit very well with the models we are serving.
    And who is to blame for the failure? The marketing firm or the client who watered down the concept to the point it had little chance of success.
    Once upon a time companies followed the advice of those they hired. This may have been the most successful times. Now it seems we follow the wishes of the client.
    That’s like taking your car to the mechanic and telling them how to fix the car.

    We need new marketing models!

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