Take Creative Risks and Dream

Experimentation and Failure as Part of Marketing Success

Best practice is helpful, but best practice is simply what worked in the past. It’s not a guarantee. And it doesn’t leave room for innovation.

Recently we’ve had several conversations about the challenges of marketing to men. Word is that they’re abandoning mass media in droves, have no brand loyalty and can smell a marketing ploy a mile away. Sound familiar? The same lament is raised about millennials, boomers, women, and businesses.

We all know why. In few short years we have gone from a media landscape dominated by TV, to a fragmented, multi-platform, multi-channel, rapidly proliferating media maelstrom. Couple that with an audience that's grown up being marketed to from birth, and you have a recipe for big marketing fun. So how do marketers and agencies navigate this terra nova with cynical inhabitants and media boundaries expanding at warp speed?

The first thing is to embrace the fact that you're going to get things wrong. We get things wrong all the time, because we're always trying new things.

When people come to us and ask us to do something we've never tried before, we don't say: "Oh no, sorry, we can't do that." Where's the fun in that? Instead we say, "Well we've never done that before, but we think we know enough about X, Y and Z to give it a good go."

And if our partners are comfortable with that experimental approach, then we put together a plan and we give it a try. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But we always learn something. So here are some strategies we find helpful in embracing the inevitable failure that comes with operating in a fast evolving space.


Accept You're Going to Fail

In fact, embrace it. Go hunting hard stuff that makes you scared. If you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough. Facebook’s mantra in their early years was “Move fast and break things.” We're not saying Facebook get everything right, but this worked well for them for many years.

Establish Safe Parameters for Failure

If you earmark a budget for learning and development through innovation, then you’ve created the perfect circumstances for effective innovation. Have deliberate conversations at the start of projects about how much you want to experiment, and how much you're prepared to gamble on that experimentation.

Failure within safe parameters is an essential part of an innovative organization. It's only when the risk of experimentation isn't managed, that failure becomes dangerous and unacceptable.

There are No Easy Answers and Quick Fixes

We humans love easy answers. And because ignorance can feel like expertise, we’re often blissfully unaware that we’re barking up the wrong tree.

But there are no magic bullets. Getting good at anything is hard. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers estimates that it take 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. That's over five years' work, if you devote 40 hours a week to your chosen skill.

Marketing is hard, because good marketing operates at a strategic level and touches every aspect of an organization. Media planning is hard because everything is changing so rapidly. Knowing your customers is hard, because it takes effort. It’s all hard. Isn’t that awesome?

Hard is Fun

Because you’re not learning anything when things are easy. And where’s the fun in that?

Research Your Customers

Do research even if you can’t afford it, because you can’t afford not to.

You don’t have to hire a research specialist, but you do need to spend time talking to your customers, asking them questions, finding out everything you can about what they like and why they like it. It’s also a good idea to dedicate time to reading research other people have carried out on your customer groups.

We encourage you to create customer personas. It’s a lot of fun and it can be a hugely informative process, helping you tailor messaging and media to the interests of each group of people you serve. We take a rigorously customer focused approach to marketing. Want to know more? Read about our strategic approach.

Set Measurable Goals

Yes I know. I’m almost embarrassed to type it it’s so obvious. But yet…we still get briefs for projects with no measurable goals. Why is that?

Tangent alert! As well as commiserating with frustrated marketers, I’ve also been reading Carol Dweck’s excellent book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. It’s a good read, and I recommend it.

Her research has identified two key human mindsets, and I'm going to give you a very simplistic summary of her far more sophisticated findings.

People with a fixed mindset believe they are either intelligent, artistic, entrepreneurial, attractive etc or they’re not. Validation is important to people with a fixed mindset. They compare themselves to other people, which can lead to feelings of superiority or inferiority. They believe that effort is inauthentic, because you’re either talented or you’re not. And they avoid risk and challenge, because failure undermines their concept of themselves.

People with a growth mindset believe that, “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ…in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments-everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” They have a love of learning and resilience that comes from embracing challenge and accepting that failure is an intrinsic part of learning new skills.

Carol Dweck also looks at the role mindsets play in whether businesses succeed or fail, and it’s fascinating. She identifies common growth mindset threads in the leadership of successful companies rescued from the brink of disaster.

Common success factors identified include:

  • Asking the tough questions
  • Encouraging critical feedback
  • Pushing boundaries
  • Learning every aspect of the business
  • Nurturing a culture of growth and teamwork
  • Crediting others
  • Setting long term goals for sustainable growth

Setting challenging yet attainable goals is tough. And yet as Carol Dweck’s research shows, the hard work is the good work that pays off in the end.

Try Lots of Different Things

Every successful campaign we have worked on recently has multiple facets and many channels. It’s increasingly rare for any of those channels to be TV, radio, print or outdoor. That’s not because we are wedded to digital. But we are wedded to ROI, and it’s rare for our clients to see ROI on traditional media. We still like to trial them, but only if we can make them measurable, and they are part of a broad mix of other media where everything has to pull its weight.

Set Time Aside to Read and Learn

And encourage your team to do the same. Make a regular time to share new discoveries and ideas. Encourage your team to play with new social media platforms, then to come back and report on what they have learned and how it might help grow your business.

Getting Things Wrong is Excellent

We covered this in my mindset tangent above. Accepting that mistakes are just part of the learning process is incredibly liberating. It frees you to push boundaries, and try new things.

It would be naïve to pretend that there isn’t a tension here between fiscal responsibility and trial and error. It’s always front of our mind as an agency that we promise ROI to our clients, so we must establish safe parameters for experimentation and balance experimentation with tactics proven to deliver results. But in a media landscape so fluid and shifting, can you afford not to explore, play and learn?

Measure Everything

Trial and error is excellent, but only if we learn from mistakes, and do things better next time. So set goals, measure results and if your campaign isn’t working, change it to put yourself back on track to success.

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