The Law of Failure

Illustration:  Bruce Crilly

It’s been noted in many places that Thomas Edison [caricatured above] may have failed as many as 1,000 times at inventing an electric-powered light bulb, and when asked about his string of failures, he turned the tables by saying (and I’m paraphrasing,) “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. I succeeded at inventing a light bulb, and it took 1,000 steps to arrive at it.”

A recent New York Times article asked the question “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” when discussing education and character among school-age children. Do a search on “failure,” and you’ll find inspiring stories of heroes of history who have failed mightily on the way to great successes: Churchill, Einstein, Darwin, Pasteur, Ford and on and on.

And at the recent DMA International Conference in Boston, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, turned failure on its head relative to social media, stating “if someone posts a negative comment about your product, it demonstrates a level of investment and passion about your brand.”

Okay, that’s a lot of fluffy and warm and puppies. But in business – and particularly in marketing – we’re trained otherwise. For most of us, “failure is not an option” for our next product rollout, or our next advertising plan, or our next event. However, if we embrace The Law of Failure, we might find that failing helps to reveal what success really looks like.

In almost every business, professionals fail their way into success, typically in a process of elimination continuum: try › fail › tweak › repeat until try ultimately leads to success. At which point, you test the snot out of that success to ensure repeatability and reliability. This is true in engineering; in medicine; in sports; in fashion; in entertainment; in technology; in a zillion other categories.

In marketing and advertising, (direct, media, creative,) we call it “testing.” But testing is simply an accepted euphemism for “financing failure to yield better strategies.” Why else would almost every big campaign be run through focus groups first?  Why test your spots on samples of your target demographic? It’s not so much that you can see what WORKS, but rather that you can reveal what DOESN’T.

My theory on why it is so vehemently avoided in the marketing/advertising arena is simply because of the money flow. When doing medical testing, for instance, the medical company has an R&D budget to cobble away in a lab for sometimes years at a time. In engineering or technology, all the sunk costs are stacked upfront – sometimes financed by venture capitalists – and millions or tens or hundreds of millions of dollars might be spent to arrive at a new design/product/solution that then gets recouped upon selling/distributing/launching.

But in advertising, the money flow is different. The typical relationship is an outsourcing model (company x hires agency y to develop the marketing program) that puts the pressure on the marketer to justify that spend and that agency choice. It’s our money, so you better spend it wisely. No marketer I’ve ever met wants to hear in the pitch “yeah, we’re gonna spend a percentage of the budget on failing.”

But that’s essentially what’s happening. Sure we do research, we do cluster analyses, we create predictive models. My colleague David Adelman at OCD Media is a media planner who creates predictive models in order to yield what he calls the most “testable propositions.”

The only problem (in advertising and marketing) is that those propositions are tested out in the marketplace, and failure is seen as a scarlet letter on the breast of the marketer (and in many high-profile cases, the agency, too.)

But I propose that failure is not a sad end to high hopes, but rather an intelligent investment in future successes.

When you fail at strategy X, you now have saved an innumerable amount of money because you KNOW that strategy X won’t work (under the current conditions.) You can instead pursue strategies Y and Z. And if they fail, you save proportional amounts, and so on. KNOWING is powerful.  Failure leads to knowing, whereas success is sometimes an intoxicating mix of planned well, guessed right, timed it right, chose a good director, etc.

This might not fly at your company if you’re a slave to the quarterly conference call with the board and have to explain that you’re failing. But if you’re a small to midsize marketer – you’ll never spend money any more wisely than by failing and KNOWING what to avoid in the future.

7 thoughts on “The Law of Failure

  1. David Adelman October 6, 2011 / 8:09 pm

    Great post, Nader and thanks for the plug. Predictive modeling is simply a laboratory for minimizing failure by using math to eliminate wrong steps and potentially identify the types of efforts that may yield better results. But sometimes even with this type of modeling failure occurs. In those cases the problem is usually one of execution that is inconsistent with the original proposition. I’m sorry to say that some of my efforts have failed. But I’m proud to say that I have learned from them.


    • Nader Ashway October 6, 2011 / 8:32 pm

      Thanks, David. Minimizing failure still requires coming to a recognition of the somethings that have gone wrong, and therefore, is still an investment in that knowledge, right? Thanks for your comment.


  2. Sandra McLeod Humphrey October 6, 2011 / 8:45 pm

    Love your post! Many times, the people who have been the most successful have also failed the most. While working on my next book for kids: Failure Isn’t Final: 25 Men and Women Who Never Gave Up, I found failure was almost a prerequisite for success if we’re counting those people who have made the greatest contributions to society. Love your blog and I’ll be back!


    • Nader Ashway October 6, 2011 / 9:24 pm

      Thanks Sandra. It seems true that failure breeds some sort of chromosome for future success. If that’s the case, I’m due for some serious accomplishments any day now! Please let me know when your book comes out, okay?


  3. Carl Pike October 8, 2011 / 1:54 am

    What about all those 3 foot putts of yours that lip out? Sorry Nade, failure sucks.


    • Nader Ashway October 8, 2011 / 5:02 pm

      Carl, I’ve missed a lot of three footers, and I’m sure you’ve misfired on a lot of game or fowl in your life. And it does suck a little -but if you don’t gain any knowledge out of that, or a thicker skin, or a desire to practice more – then that would suck a lot.


  4. Anonymous December 4, 2011 / 1:19 pm

    Life is GREAT… even when it sucks!


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