4 CMOs share their advice on embracing failure

We asked four marketing leaders their advice on coping with failure and why it's core to innovation

‘Failure’ is a term that is seemingly in vogue, but are marketing leaders truly embracing what it stands for? We asked 4 Aussie CMOs to share how failure fits in their team’s innovation and development mindset.

Understand your performance

Barni Evans, marketing director, Sportsbet

Call me cynical, but failure seems like a topic that’s been refreshed with rhetoric just to give consultants something to talk about at conferences. Fail fast; don’t fear failure; if you’re not taking risks, you’re not doing your job; blah, blah, blah.

This is really about a simpler principle that predates most of us: Understand your performance so you can do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. And the critical word is Understand.

We’re all striving for marginal advantage. That prompts us to take risks, half of which won’t pay off. If you study your performance, you should get better at taking risks. This isn’t just about failure. It’s just as important to understand success.

My teams are ruthless in understanding their performance. They get paranoid that good results might just have been due to extraneous factors. When things don’t work, they publicise the facts and encourage stakeholders to help diagnose the problem.

They invest almost all their time measuring, debating, challenging, and almost zero time trying to make their work look successful.

They’ll use as many sources as they can find, whether they be hard or soft, empirical or anecdotal, internal or external. This is where the best marketers excel. They’ll take all the data, evaluate it dispassionately – then stick their neck out and have a firm opinion.

For example: ‘It worked because of X, Y and Z and we’re gonna divert cash from elsewhere to do more of it’. Or: ‘It tanked because we stuffed up the execution – so we’re gonna give it one more try – then move on’.

And the great thing about these people? You trust them. You give them autonomy. You believe their analysis. Eventually you get to the holy grail: In the absence of perfect data, you’re willing to back their judgment. How’s that for failure?

Let ideas grow and develop

Ed Smith, executive director sales and marketing, Foxtel

I haven’t heard failure is in vogue; that’s kind of funny. I’ll tell you what I loved about working at News Corp and what I see at Foxtel also. They are entrepreneurial companies – we take risks, we push the boundaries and if things don’t always work out like you plan or like you hope, that’s the nature of risk. But we’re not scared to fail, so as long as we ‘fail fast’, we learn, we adapt and we improve.

‘Courageous’ is one of our values and we don’t just talk about it, we live it. But we’re not loose. We set clear objectives, we explore the ways, proven and new ideas, to hit our objectives. We balance our risk with what we know and what we think might work better. We research where we can to reduce risk or build on our ideas. Most importantly, we take time to properly review and see if we achieved the results we wanted and why, what worked, what didn’t, and what would we have done differently.

Most of us can remember our worst failures; they seem to stick in our minds more than our successes or average performances. So it’s important failures are part of personal and corporate learning experiences and that we build and improve through them, not ignore and fear them. We won’t grow and learn as much as we can if we don’t accept failure.

As a leader, I’ve had to learn that my way or idea isn’t the only or even best way to do something. I’ve had to learn to let ideas grow and develop and that something better may eventuate.

I’m still working on my leadership, creating an environment that lets ideas grow, lets people do things their way and where we can innovate and explore new and better ways of doing things.

Up next: Cricket Australia, Macquarie Telecom CMOs

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Be prepared to lose to win

Ben Amarfio, executive general manager of media, communications and marketing, Cricket Australia

Upfront, I should be clear that I am a very competitive person who doesn’t like losing and failure. As a long-term business strategy, regular failure has some limitations, but I appreciate the notion that if you’re not failing sometimes, you are probably playing things too safely. Jeff Bezos has taught us that in order to innovate, we are going to have failures as a result of experimentation, taking risks and challenging the status quo.

The essence of professional sport is that you play to win, so the concept of celebrating failure runs contrary to the goal of sporting contests and yet it is a day-to-day reality for all sporting organisations, including Cricket Australia. It would be fair to say we learn as much from failure as we do from success.

Our national teams live by the mantra that we are prepared to lose in the pursuit of winning. Our national coaches, Darren Lehmann and Cathryn Fitzpatrick, and captains, Michael Clarke and Meg Lanning, are very aggressive in their approaches. They are not interested in playing for draws unless all opportunity for winning is extinguished. They are prepared to risk failure for a win.

Our marketing function is no different – we want to take risks and we have to risk failing in the pursuit of success. Fortunately, both our national teams and marketing team win more than we lose.

At the heart of it, people avoid risking failure because frankly it’s not much fun and too much of it is career limiting.

But in order to be an effective marketing function, we need to stop thinking of failure as something to be avoided and recognise the positive to come from it, which is learning. The key is constantly learning from failure in order to minimise failure, eliminate the things that don’t work and improve the process.

The seasonal nature of cricket gives our marketing team an opportunity to assess the success or failure of activities on a regular basis, and build on our experiences year-on-year.

We are focused on delivering innovation across our marketing function and it is only through reflection on the effectiveness of our work that we are able to improve.

How to pinpoint marketing effectiveness? That’s a whole other topic.

What’s also critical to the concept of failure being properly embraced in any organisation is a culture where feedback is encouraged. This is something we are constantly looking to improve.

We have to give people confidence that they can try different things and be rewarded if they are successful.

More importantly, however, we can’t castigate, belittle or punish those who fail while pursuing a considered risk.

Those who have done their due diligence and proper analysis but failed due to reasons beyond their control should be celebrated for having a crack – isn’t that part of being Australian?

Braving the unknown

Ashif Dhanani, CMO, Macquarie Telecom

If you have never failed at marketing, you haven’t tried anything new. It means you have stayed close to past best practice, and settled for ‘me-too marketing’ tactics.

The world is changing fast; whether you are in a B2C or B2B environment, your audience is evolving every single day. They are choosing where, when and how to use information to make informed purchasing decisions. Social media channels will fall in and out of favour and other channels are evolving faster than books can be written about how to use them. To keep up, you have no choice but to experiment. And with that comes higher probability of failure.

We did this recently with an activity that we’d never measured before. In an organisation where every dollar is accounted for, we had to squeeze the funding from other activities to brave something new, knowing it may not work. And in the past, there have been campaigns that haven’t delivered the results. Failure and learning from it is the necessary step to getting things right next time and it’s now a way of life for most reputable marketers.

The idea of failure does not align with the need to have defined KPIs with milestones and targets. I have yet to see a KPI that has a goal to fail, which is ironic, because it is only by failures that you can reach marketing excellence.

When leading a team, it is important to keep everyone focused on the end destination; each team member should be encouraged to get to the destination without any adverse effect from failing a few times on their way there. The main job for marketing leadership is to bring the rest of the team on the journey – and that includes occasionally failing, learning and evolving your approach.

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