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Failure is not an option, It’s a requirement

Daniel Glickman

To manage failure you must first accept it

Remember back when you were fresh out of school and thought you knew it all? The world is very deterministic for the young: “This is what my professor told me, therefore this has to be true.” But then you enter the real world and now you’ve got a bunch of people who are all essentially brand new to the job. No matter how much experience you have, nobody has experience nowadays in whatever it is they’re doing, unless they work for Procter & Gamble, a company that has been doing the same thing forever.

Nobody has experience in whatever it is they are doing because whatever they’re doing didn’t exist five years ago. Nowadays, we’re all new to the job. We’re all inexperienced. These are truths you’ll have to accept if you want to manage your marketing resources properly.

Two years ago, we hired social media people, and then we let them go and hired content marketers instead and now we’re hiring the social media crews again, because now we’re doing something different. But this “something different” will go away soon again. Marketing cycles move crazy quick now. Think about how huge SEO was three years ago—now no one even thinks about it.

In marketing everything is changing constantly. You can choose to look at this as a good thing or a bad thing, but the opportunity here—with all this constant change—is that nothing you try can really ever be labeled a failure. Now, when we talk about “failure,” we don’t really talk about failure, but about the cost of figuring things out.

What’s the cost of setting up a system? This “no failure just figuring things out” mentality is similar in a way to the cost of having to replace employees. There is a cost to hiring new employees: Some don’t fit and you have to hire new ones. This is how marketing works now. You try stuff and some of it doesn’t pan out. Back to the drawing board! Let’s try it a little bit differently. Oh, now it works! So you stick to what works, until it no longer does. 

Just a few years ago, I could say, “All I have to do is figure out one channel that I really do well at, and make sure that we’re much better than the competitors at working that channel.”

A few years ago, that was half the battle. Now, there’s this constant feeling that whatever that you have figured out today will be gone tomorrow. Literally, it is going to be gone tomorrow. As a manager, I’m more focused on creating a team that is constantly exploring work, constantly testing stuff, and constantly able to quickly adapt and turn ship.

By quickly, I mean very, very quickly. Ideally, I hope I don’t lose employees in the process. I love to hire marketers that when presented with a challenge, immediately say, “I can do it.” I work under one assumption, that everything that is working well for us today, might not be relevant at all next year—or tomorrow. That is the one constant I rely on.

Let-me-fail - CMO Confessions

A couple of years ago, Facebook pages were all the rage. Companies were spending millions on getting Facebook likes to their company page. They counted the number of followers obsessively, and then—BAMMO!—overnight, literally overnight, Facebook came out and said, “We’re decreasing the amount of organic exposure you’re going to get on Facebook. From now on, you have to be paid to be seen.”

Just like that, millions of dollars went down the drain and a tremendous amount of work was tossed out. The whole methodology that marketers built, was devastated by one announcement from one company. Granted, Facebook is one powerful company.

The point is, we have come to accept the possible overnight dismantling of everything we have spent months building, as the new norm. It doesn’t really matter if it’s Facebook or Twitter. Google Plus was a big thing for how long? Not long and now it’s gone. We accept that things don’t last long—new ideas, plans, strategies—so we grab on to what we can while it lasts. It’s not going to last long, we know that. So what can we do quickly? Where can we just swoosh in and make a splash or an impact? And after that channel folds, with no surprise, we’ll say, “Okay, this is the new norm. Next!”

When everything constantly changes, you become a novice at anything you do because nothing is quite the same as it was before.

In an ever-changing environment failure is inevitable, but if you manage it right, the failures are not big ones. They are merely the kind of operational stuff you forget later. You should strive to encourage your marketing team to fail on a small scale and ensure that lessons are learned. Every A/B test is a failure. The point is, you always need to think together: “Why did we think that option B might work when it actionably did not, and what can we learn from it?”

Don’t forget to always stop and learn. Remember “beginner’s mind,” because that’s what we’re all equipped with now. People ask me, “How much does it cost to make viral video?” I love this question, because people will often follow it up with: “I know a guy that said he can create the next viral marketing craze for $2000 bucks using an iPhone. So really, what’s the big deal in making a viral video? It doesn’t take much.”

But remember that Jean-Claude Van Damme video that Volvo promoted on Youtube? In my mind it cost millions. Not because Van Damme cost millions. A star costs whatever he costs and that video cost whatever it cost, but when you factor in all the failures along the way, that is what adds up. Volvo tried many different videos before hiring Van Damme, and each video before his was a failure. By accepting failure as part of the process and learning from the failure, they kept refining their vision—they didn’t give it up. And what did they get? Volvo created an outstanding and unforgettable viral campaign.

Every little thing you do is earning you an education. When you were at university, you failed a couple of tests—maybe even a course or two—and sometimes you got better grades than others. It doesn’t matter at all now, does it? You don’t even remember what tests or classes you failed. With the marketing process today, it’s the same thing: There are no big failures to dwell on. Do not dwell—there’s no time. The stuff you do that doesn’t pan out? It is all just normal stuff that happens along the way. Keep moving forward.

So as a manager, how do you manage this process? You start by eliminating the one human obstacle to learning: Comfort. Comfort is a human trait and desire. We love it. We crave and love our stability. We like our habits. We would love, in some ways, to come to work and do the same thing and never worry about losing our jobs. There is an inherent stress at work nowadays, because we have no clue if what we are doing today will show the results we hope for at the next quarterly meeting.

The truth is, you think you know what will help a brand’s sales shoot through the roof or go viral, but you don’t really know. With the not knowing and never being able to put a finger on an exact solution, there comes constant stress. We want that comfort and we want to snuggle up with “the thing” we know works well, but the problem is that we know now that the marketing landscape shifts at light speed.

It used to be that you would get hired for a job and you’d be expected to just do whatever it was you were hired to do. You were put on a path and you just kept walking in the same direction. Now, your journey is much more complicated and complex. It’s very hard to change direction, but we all must. If you ask your team to change too often, you risk having them freak out at you. If you walk in every day and say, “Hey, can work on this instead of that? And oh by the way, everything we planned yesterday, forget it! Today we’re going to do something else. Tomorrow, we might do something else too.”

Yes, people will freak out. Even marketers, who have a high tolerance for change.

To help mitigate the risk of people freaking out, I try to train them daily to take more risks—to live in a risk zone so that eventually, they adapt and feel comfortable there. I build their confidence and keep pushing them to get out of their comfort zone, because the worst enemy of success is doing a good job. You don’t want your team getting used to doing a good job. You want them to do an excellent job and in order to do that, you have to create a culture where people are excited about change.

This is not an easy task. It’s a challenge. On one hand, there’s always an edge you need to re-examine and re-evaluate. You and your team have to keep learning, keep changing, and keep doing. When you take risks and start to stick out, competitors pick up on you quickly too, and then they copy you. You look over your shoulder and say, “Oh! Time to do something a little different now—again—already!” And so, the environment keeps changing.

Ultimately, you want people to be happy at their job. You don’t want them to be so stressed out that their brains fry and they can’t innovate. As CMO, you must continually innovate so that your team is not simply working hard and getting paid. Instill a love of change and a capacity to build momentum quickly.

Nobody in today’s marketplace can afford to merely survive. Embrace change and learn to master it. Accept failure as part of the process.

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