Cult of failure borrowed from startup world is ‘idiotic’ in marketing context says tech panel

Dave King, Phil Phelan, Nic Hodges and Ben Moir at the 'Post hype' session at Mumbrella360

Dave King, Phil Phelan, Nic Hodges and Ben Moir at the ‘Post hype’ session at Mumbrella360

A panel of agency executives and technologists has described as “idiotic” the current vogue in marketing circles – borrowed from the startup world – to use language that celebrates failure.

The “cult of failure” now prevalent in Silicon Valley is not helpful for advertising agencies with paying clients, it emerged from the Mumbrella360 conference panel titled ‘Post hype’.

“‘Fail fast’ is a phrase we’ve taken from the startup world, but clients don’t like us failing on their dime,” said Dave King, founder of independent ad agency The Royals, on the topic of startup language such as “prototyping” and “fail fast” creeping into marketing lexicon.

Phil Phelan, the national strategy director at tech-meets-marketing agency Sapient Nitro Australia, told his audience: “I hate the cult of failure, it’s idiotic. It’s a concept that makes some sense at the early stage startup. But when you take it out of that context, it’s a bad idea.”

“What we should be promoting is a culture of learning. Experimentation is a good thing, but it’s not the same thing as celebrating failure,” said Phelan in the session moderated by Nic Hodges, the head of innovation for publishing giant News Corp.

“We prototype, that’s a great way to conceptualise. But it’s not a great way to lead into creating a big concept thing like a website of a TV production,” he said. “Big beautiful pieces of craft need more than prototyping.”

The panel discussed the confusion between novelty and genuine innovation. King said that since marketers are in the business of getting attention, novelty was no bad thing.

“Novelty is not a negative, it’s a powerful ally in creating a great experience or narrative. We’re not afraid of it,” he said. “But novelty that gets in the way of a story or communication and is just designed for awards or PR is not a crash-hot idea.”

Phelan added: “There is a role for novelty in marketing, even if it’s only to get attention. It still has a functional, useful role. But I think there’s been a huge over-focus on novelty. For me, we haven’t even touched the sides with many of the technologies that many people have already moved away from.”

“There’s a huge amount of innovation that can be done with technology that has been sat around for decades, but we’re too busy thinking about Enrique Iglesias drones,” he said, referring to an incident last week when the Spanish singer sliced his hand on a flying camera rig.

“Disruption” was another word the panel suggested had lost its meaning in the marketing context.

Phelan said the “fetishisation of disruption” in marketing has meant that the industry was often pushing into unfamiliar territory and using new technology to be seen to be innovative.

“Disruption is an ethereal concept that seems to mean: We’d like to do something differently, we don’t want to do what we’ve always done. There really is a value in being really good at the thing you do. You can be a car and be a great car,” he said.

“In marketing, people take concepts and words that have an actual meaning, spread them about, and then the meaning is lost. It does feel that there needs to be more clarity in the language. Do you mean business or technology disruption?” Phelan said.

On the definition of disruption, King said: “You have to unpack what you mean by disruptive technologies. We need to get the language right with different parties that do not share your culture.”

On how the agency model needs to change to embrace new technology, Phelan said that his agency, Sapient Nitro, had had some success with a process called “blending”.

“We bring together people from different disciplines – strategists, project managers, technologists, creatives and so on – and get them to work through the processes together. It can seem vastly inefficient. People ask: Why have a creative in a commerce solutions work shop? But when you get into a rhythm, you see more transformative work.”

“If you can be more blended and collaborative, the work is more powerful and transformative than the sausage factory approach,” he said.

The panel named Periscope, drones and big data as the most overhyped technologies. Wearable tech architect Ben Moir, who created vibrating underwear ‘Fundawear’ for Durex in 2013, said that tech around the sense of smell was an untapped area.

Robin Hicks


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