How Much Risk Are We and Our Agency Really Willing to Take?

As Long As Teams Know the Limits of Acceptable Failure, Creativity Will Thrive

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One of the first questions our agency asks new clients is about tolerance for risk, both the marketer's personal view and the corporate perspective. This helps us understand how far we can push the work and how likely our strategic approach will ever see the light of day.

But we don't often ask ourselves the same question. What is our own tolerance for risk? We need to know. There is nothing worse, as one CMO I know says, than an agency that "borrows a client's watch and tells him what time it is ." And that 's what happens when the agency doesn't celebrate its own risk takers. Our willingness to take chances impacts both our work product and our agency environment.

For me, taking risks is incredibly difficult. With risk comes the possibility of failure, and I hate to fail. Yet I know that a successful agency must be a place where risky thinking can thrive. We have a saying at our agency: "Wisdom makes you successful. Failure makes you wise." This is easy for me to say – but harder for me to put into daily practice.

It's scary to celebrate a team for bringing a great idea to life that may not be the right solution today but could pay off at some undefined point in the future. How do we find the courage to do it? The key is to identify which type of failure is okay and which risks the agency is never willing to take.

Here are two categories of unacceptable risk at our agency:

  • Risk that is executional only and not based in a core insight designed to achieve our client's business objective. The work must respect the client and be grounded in smart, strategic business thinking.

  • Risk that jeopardizes the internal trust that develops when we are all working on the same team and for a common goal. It's a matter of showing people that they can think creatively, but within a commonly understood set of boundaries. Our canvas is pretty wide open, but it's never infinite. Internally we have to be on the same page about the canvas itself, though not necessarily the colors we will paint with, or the design we will create.

As creative people, we are a bit like children who crave a little discipline in order to be at our best. And, like kids, we are most creative when we are free to be fearless.

Meredith Vaughan is president of Vladimir Jones, Colorado Springs, Colo.
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