Why the best marketers will embrace failure

Solomon Radley20/08/2018

Behind every winning campaign you’ll find a dozen ideas that missed the mark. Far from being something to shy away from, these failures are an integral part of the creative process.

Too many people are afraid of failure.

Some go through their whole lives avoiding risks and playing it safe. Others find it impossible to own up to their mistakes, and never learn from them as a result. A few even accept that failure is a natural part of life but see it as an inconvenience that must simply be endured.

But the fact is, failure is a key ingredient for success in any business – and that goes double for the marketing department. If you aren’t failing, you probably aren’t reaching your full potential.

Lubricant spray WD‐40 got its name because the formula represents the manufacturer’s 40th attempt to create something that worked.

James Dyson tested 5,271 prototypes before he finally found a vacuum cleaner that worked. And even then, he couldn’t find an American or European company to build his product.

Bubble wrap was originally invented in 1960 as an attempt to create a trendy new textured wallpaper. It wasn’t until IBM used it to package computers during transit that it became an overnight success.

The point is, these companies exist because of failure, not in spite of it – and the same is true for many of the best marketing initiatives.

Marketing is a blend of art and science. It is not perfect, so failure is inevitable. 
MasterCard CMO Raja Rajamannar

You can gather as much data as you like about your audience, what’s worked in the past and the latest industry trends. Sometimes, the campaign will still fall flat on its face. More often than you’d think, it’s the madcap ideas that go against conventional wisdom that generate the best results.

“Test counterintuitive things, because your competitors won’t,” says Ogilvy vice chairman Rory Sutherland. “Practically every time I test something that doesn’t make conventional sense, it works.”

To illustrate this idea, Sutherland gives the example of a mid‐priced fast food chain looking to increase its sales. His advice? Put the prices up.

“There are two opposite reasons you go to a fast food restaurant,” he explains. “One is for a bargain, the other is for a treat. If you price something halfway between the two, you’re actually creating no emotional value at all.”

Of course, for every brilliant idea that makes your business millions, there will be many others you were sure would work that end up missing the mark.

This dynamic makes some executives uncomfortable. They reason that too many failures in a row could ruin their business, and that may be true. But it’s also true that without constant innovation, you’ll inevitably lose ground to competitors with a greater appetite for risk and experimentation.

So, today we’ll look at how to cultivate a culture that embraces failure in your organisation. Then, we’ll outline how to efficiently test new ideas to find the ones with the power to transform your marketing initiatives.

How to be bold, direct and fearless

Taking risks tends to come more naturally to younger companies. They’re hungry to carve out their place in a crowded market and are nimbler than their established competitors, which have more internal stakeholders to please and extra layers of red tape to navigate.

The irony is that larger companies have more resources to play with, and in that respect are in a far stronger position to take the risks required to cut through in B2B marketing.

Whatever size business you work in, driving this kind of organisational change can be hard work. But if you want to instil a culture of calculated risk taking at your company, you’ve got start at the top.

Set aside a percentage of your marketing budget to test new ideas, and make sure you use these funds to run experimental campaigns on a regular basis. Show your staff you want them to try new things and work to create an environment that rewards thinking ‘outside of the box’.

This is especially important when it comes to content marketing. Your ability to get content with the right message in front of the right people at the right time will determine whether each campaign sinks or swims. So, how you activate them is critical.

Experiment with new promotional channels you haven’t used before and unconventional mediums you can use to serve people ultra‐targeted, highly relevant content.

Are you getting the most out of your paid and social channels? Maybe it’s time to rethink your print media strategy. You could even try creating premium, personalised direct mail pieces for key specific prospects you want to engage.

At the same time, it’s important to test new content ideas to see what resonates with your audience.

Remember, any information that is available freely online will provide your customers with little value on its own. To grab their attention and influence their thinking, you need to be publishing perspectives and insights they won’t find anywhere else. That’s why it’s so important to create a culture where your team can be bold, direct and fearless.

As we argue in Six thinking hats for marketers, involving too many people in your decision‐making process can actually stifle creativity. So, break down into small groups when brainstorming new ideas to test, and use the ‘six hats’ technique to guide your sessions for best results.

You’re bound to have a few failures along the way. But as you’ve seen already, that’s nothing to be afraid of. Start small with each new initiative to test its impact and amplify the ones that deliver results.

If you’re going to fail, be sure to fail fast

When planning a bold new marketing initiative, it can be tempting to keep working on everything until it’s perfect. Naturally, this will give you the greatest chance of success when the project finally launches.

Unfortunately, this is not always the best way of doing things.

The simple fact is, some of the new ideas you have won’t work – and you don’t want to waste unnecessary time or resources on these initiatives.

It’s important to try new things. But you need to generate preliminary results fast, so you can push past the duds and get onto the huge successes that will make this whole exercise worthwhile.

“We need an environment that encourages the testing of ideas,” says Ogilvy & Mather CMO Nina Jasinski. “That process needs to be fast. You can’t let failure fester.”

In practice, that may sometimes mean launching initiatives once they’re ‘good enough’ and perfecting them later. It can also mean testing campaigns on a small scale before rolling them out across the whole business or division.

How to embrace failure in three easy steps

For example, before committing to a big print run for a new branded publication, you might decide to test how it performs as a digital report. This will let you quickly gauge whether the content resonates with your audience, while also making it possible to test different titles and cover designs to see what generates the best engagement.

If the report does well in one market, you might then look into rolling it out across the region – or even worldwide. In time, it could become your organisation’s flagship report.

By testing each new project’s viability in this way on a small scale before fully committing to it, you can effectively manage the risk. If something doesn’t work, you’ll then quickly be able to move onto the next idea.

Embrace your failures and learn from them. The successes they give rise to will make all the knockbacks along the way worthwhile.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t be afraid to try bold new ideas. Failure is an essential part of the creative process. It’s the only way to deliver truly innovative campaigns that transform your business.
  • Cultural change must come from the top. Set aside a percentage of your marketing budget for testing new initiatives and create a culture that rewards ‘outside the box’ thinking.
  • When you fail, fail fast. Roll out new initiatives on a small scale first to test their viability. Then, invest resources amplifying the ideas that work for maximum reach and impact.