Does Marketing Mean Never Having to Say You're Sorry?

Why Admitting Failure Might Be the Path to Success

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
How is it that every campaign that comes out of your department is a success?

Granted, there's always that college-application admission of a shortcoming, as in "my greatest weakness is that I work too hard and stay focused on reaching my goals," but almost everything, from a little social-media experiment to a big new-product launch, succeeds in one way or another. Think of a true failure (Bud's "Drinkability" campaign comes to mind) and the client marketers, agencies and consultants responsible don't come close to admitting it before blaming one another, losing budget, or getting consumer reaction that's so overwhelmingly negative that silver-lining analyses will no longer cover it up. We usually don't stop driving until someone peels our fingers off the steering wheel.

I'm not so sure this is good for your brand or your career.

Our culture is partly to blame. Anybody with a kid in grade school knows that every child is gifted these days; no student fails but rather "succeeds differently," as some vague preservation of their mental well-being overrides concerns about their actually learning anything. Ditto goes for most art and especially user-generated content, for which distinctions of "good" or "bad" fall before the criteria of "personal" and "unique." I know I risk sounding like some old guy with a pocket-protector complaining that the Beatles play their music too loud, but there's change afoot, and we'd be fools not to see how it influences our behavior.

However, there are at least three reasons unique to the CMO world that encourage finding successes instead of failures:

Political necessity. There's the fear that finding fault in programs you've approved or sponsored will somehow come back to haunt you, either in reduced budget or the suggestion that you find greener pastures.

Personal need. Nobody likes screwing up, and I don't care if you're a corporate big cheese or trying to build a ship model out of balsa wood in your basement. We Americans are a hopeful bunch, too, and we hate risking appearing negative.

Philosophical cover. If you're a true believer in branding there's no such thing as a failure. Everything achieves awareness of some sort or another. We talk digital but our ideas about brands are still very analog.

Think about it: When was the last time you attended a conference that explored the year's most stunning failures? How many articles in this magazine dare note, let alone deconstruct, campaigns that stink? It doesn't help that there are no standardized metrics for telling one outcome from another, and that's after how many conferences and articles about measurement? No, we don't talk about failure because we choose not to see it. Here are three reasons why I think that's a mistake:

Reality matters. Preservation of branding absolutes often conflicts with the messy variability of business reality, where the continuous improvement of operations is based on finding and fixing faults. This means our reports and rationales often fall on deaf, if not on unbelieving, ears. Would our credibility go up if our successes went down?

Strategic opportunities. Let's face it: Much of what happens in marketing is no better than "me too" envy, especially when it comes to social media or other presumably new ideas. Perhaps if you took responsibility for finding more flaws you'd get out of the business of trying to copy campaigns that qualify as successes only because someone heard about them (or an agency pitch tells you so)?

Inspiring people. There's something just a little odd about never being wrong, and even the most junior staffer knows it, if only instinctively. Are we training a generation of marketers who think anything goes and everything has value? Maybe they'd appreciate it if we helped them make some critical distinctions that supported their careers and helped our brands (see curmudgeon disclosure above).

Ultimately, CMOs are no different than the consumers to whom you sell in at least one respect: You see what you want to see, or at least what you hope others will see. According to the conferences and articles I've read so far this year, every CMO is doing a bang-up job and every campaign is firing on one or more cylinders.

Funny how everyone is so smart and successful. It just seems to me like the surest path to failure.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author, and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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