Too many marketers fear failure instead of embracing it. They fear that reporting poor results will be viewed as poor management. Instead, they should be positioning their results as learnings. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does; yet the fear of failure permeates many corporate cultures, discouraging risk-taking and encouraging the status quo.
There have been many times when I proposed a limited test plan with a small downside only to have it rejected by the client in favor of “the way we’ve always done it.” Following the course that nobody ever got fired for may be the politically safe option, but breakthrough results are never achieved from the status quo. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”
Reporting on the acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, The New York Times noted, “While other companies dread making colossal mistakes, Mr. Bezos seems just not to care … That breeds a fiercely experimental culture that is disrupting entertainment, technology and especially retail.” (June 18, 2017) Commenting on Bezos’s style, Farhad Manjoo said in his column State of the Art, “The other thing to know about Mr. Bezos is that he is a committed experimentalist. His main way of deciding what Amazon should do next is to try stuff out, see what works, and do more of that.” (NYTimes June 19, 2017) Something direct marketers have done for decades.
Learning to embrace failure is an acquired skill. Smith College has instituted a new program called “Failing Well” to destigmatize failure for the high achievers who are admitted to the prestigious school on the basis of their perfect resumes. Smith’s Rachel Simmons says, “What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s a feature.” (NYTimes, June 25, 2017)
David Ogilvy, a strong proponent of testing and measurement, addresses the importance of embracing failures in the Ogilvy on Advertising chapter entitled “The 18 Miracles of Research.” He relates a story about a client who had invested $600,000 (a large sum in Ogilvy’s day) to develop a new product line. Ogilivy says, “ … our research showed a notable lack of enthusiasm … When I reported this discouraging news to the client I was afraid that, like most executives faced with inconvenient research, he would argue the methodology. I underestimated him. ‘Dry hole,’ said he, and left the meeting.”
Testing and experimentation is easy in the digital marketing environment. Even the best-conceived test plans will produce more failures than successes. Embrace those failures as valuable learnings.