Failure will lead you to closer client relationships

Starting a new client relationship with an idea that doesn't work isn't always a bad thing, argues Rocket's James Lawrence. In fact, being okay with failure is a braveness that you should strive for with clients.

There is a lot of pressure at the start of every client relationship or new campaign to prove yourself quickly. Quick results build solidarity for your cause and your skills. But we could be risking long-term brand sustainability by being too concerned with getting it right from the get-go.

Many experts have extolled failure’s virtues, inspiring buzz words and catch phrases like ‘Fail fast, fail often’.

Though how do we reconcile this with the fact that failure is inherently an unwelcome outcome? It’s enough to make any marketer dizzy.

Failure isn’t always a bad thing

The answer lies in how we should define and talk about failure.

Failure is a lack of success. Falling short. Not achieving your goals. Not a good thing.

But with respect to the start of a client relationship or at the start of any new campaign, there are those failures that come from the usual process of learning. That trial and error time, when you should be testing reasonable assumptions. 

This is not failure. It’s experimentation. 

It’s here that we need to fight back, challenge ourselves, our clients and our bosses about what we think is reasonable.

“Yes,” you will say to your client. 

“I know you’ve only just started working with us and it can be difficult to trust a new team, because your job is on the line with this choice.”

“But, no,” you will continue. “It’s not because we don’t know our stuff that this thing didn’t work.

“It’s that we’re moving toward a solution in uncharted territory for your brand and we need to review and test these well-known and trusted marketing approaches on your unique audience and in your unique context.” 

This is an important thing to do because the repercussions of fear of this version of failure is short-term thinking and bias that rarely eliminates the problem. It leads to an inability to develop a deep understanding by investigating root causes and taking corrective action. 

The freedom to make mistakes encourages experimentation and innovation with a broader search for alternatives.

I get it, though. It’s hard. 

In the effort to dissect past mistakes, team members might want to hold back information or avoid challenging ideas for fear of resentment or retribution.

A discussion about failure can deteriorate into personal attacks and finger-pointing. That seems like a sure-fire way to bust up working relationships and thwart any effort to learn from the experience.  

That is why fostering an environment of constructive conflict, or a space for respectful debate of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions is helpful. 

Only in such a climate can the key lessons from past failures be identified and incorporated into a firm’s knowledge base, which in turn promotes successful innovation.

The latest edition of The Journal of Business Venturing investigated this issue, with academics Erwin Danneels and Alex Vestal agreeing that it’s not about normalising failure, but making deliberate efforts to analyse past failures that will lead to innovation.

Really, that’s the key. Don’t romanticise failure. 

Celebrating failure with catch phrases and anti-achievement slogans seems like too much marketing for this marketer.

It’s not enough to tolerate failure. You must work on it. Think it through. Understand it, for it to be a worthwhile part of the process of a new campaign.  

The absence of certain feedback mechanisms, such as reliability and quality control tools, can result in secrecy, distortions, and reluctance to share vital information.

So, let’s be brave. Say no to approaches that fixate on norms of conformity or pay homage to low-risk approaches and lack of self-criticism.

Instead, commit to a process of innovation, learning and rigorous analysis. An iterative journey toward success and a closer client relationship.

James Lawrence is co-founder of digital marketing agency Rocket Agency, and author of Smarter Marketer


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