2015 End of Year Roundup

December 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Marketing will never be the same because buzzwords including amygdala and limbic, and prefixes like neuro and omni. Also, everything you know is wrong but everything important you learned on the playground, except millennials, boomers and mobile. Oh, and print, tv, radio, browsers and advertising are dead. And I nearly forgot the next important target, VR-holo-natives ‪#‎everyBlogPostAndArticleInDecember‬

Categories: Uncategorized

Memetic Marketing and Learning From The Underpants Gnomes

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Memetic Marketing and Learning From The Underpants Gnomes

I often like to start writing with a song in mind. Today, Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee popped into my head, although so did Janis Joplin’s version, and the Grateful Dead’s version – even though Pink’s version didn’t. Regardless of your age there is something about the song in any of its cover versions that resonates.

I think one reason is in this line, “Good enough was good enough for me… good enough for me and Bobby McGee.” You know – don’t tell me about goals, man, just let me live, ‘cuz School’s Out Forever! (sorry, that was Alice Cooper shouting out for attention).

Not good enough
I also love that Que Sera Sera feeling (okay, this time it’s Doris Day coming up like a sunflower, and the last of the songs). However, even though ‘good enough might be good enough for Bobby McGee,’ it’s not enough for me when I have my marketer’s hat on. And it shouldn’t be for anyone in our business.

We’ve just come through Breast Cancer Awareness month, and have transitioned to the annual Movember meme-a-thon which is supposed to remind us, um, not to shave? This kind of memetic marketing, especially around a cause, represents an area where we, as marketers, tend to be less than good enough.

Underpants Gnomes
And to understand it better, let’s take a look at the Underpants Gnomes. South Park’s Underpants Gnomes are well known for missing a step in their quest for riches. Step 1, Collect Underpants. Step 2 ?? Step 3, Riches.

Too many memetic marketing efforts seem to follow the same basic model, although with an extra step: 1) Pick a goal or cause, 2) Do something weird or disruptive that people share or talk about, 3) Mission accomplished! We’ve changed the world. 4) Congratulate self for coming up with or (here’s the viral part) participating in expression of idea.

We’re Changing The World! Right?
Our marketing goal should be a change of behavior, or at worst, a change in attitude or belief that leads directly to a future change in behavior. Without directly asking people to behave, think, or feel differently, we’re engaging in magical thinking.

  • Share this status to end child labor.
  • Like this page to send a message to Congress.
  • Watch this video to encourage more women to have life-saving mammograms.
  • Grow a mustache and share it to… (I’m still not sure what the point is. Something to do with men’s health – btw good luck finding that on the homepage of the official charity site www.movember.com).

And we like to do this stuff – it’s easy, we get a badge or a gold star, and it feels like we’re actually accomplishing something – we’re changing the world! Aren’t we?

Well, no.

For the most part, just getting the word out isn’t going to do much of anything, other than just getting the word out. Let’s remember one of the basic tactics of marketing – the call to action. A simple technique – ask people do to something and they’re more likely to do it.

What we should be asking them to do is whatever will directly lead to what we’d like to be true when the campaign is done (get a mammogram, get a prostate/testicular exam).

Instead, we tend to ask them to share the viral part, because that’s more fun (we mostly create fun viral stuff), and it’s easy to measure shares and likes.

We’re dropping the ball on conversion. We’d never do that if it were a client – but the moment we “create a movement” around a cause, we start measuring success by whether the movement grows, instead of by whether the movement accomplishes its goals.

Disruption – Only Half a Tactic
We have to remember that disruption isn’t the goal – it’s only half of a tactic. In fact, there’s a bit of psych often applied to marketing called the Disrupt-then-Reframe tactic*. First, shake people up (tell them something that disorients them), THEN tell them what you want them to believe is true – the reframe – and  they’re more likely to believe it because it’s something solid they can rely on in the disoriented state you just created.

In marketing, the reframe is often a call to action – do this, believe that, think this way about that – and it should be very clear.

By the way, the DTR tactic can work for any kind of marketing, not just memetic.

For all of the great attention-getting videos and campaigns for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I rarely saw an obvious “click here to find a local women’s health clinic,” or “click here for a page of educational links” button. If the point is that women get mammograms, we need to make that very clear, and make the action very actionable. Not just shareable. Ditto with Movember – it’s a great cause (once I finally found it) – but most of the campaigns I’ve seen in the past and so far this year deemphasize getting people to the doctor versus giving them something fun to share or post about.

What’s the Point?
The badge value of posting or sharing has to tie to an actual behavioral change, or it has no value. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts award badges for doing something, not thinking about something (my post-doc friends say that’s what PhD’s are for). We need our badges to represent accomplishment of more than shares and likes.

In our focus on experience as the currency that drives engagement, we can’t forget that currency is used as an exchange platform for products and services. Ultimately, experiences need to be “spent” on products or services, or all we’re doing is creating a culture of experience hoarders who contribute nothing to the bottom line.

We need to do more than collect underpants if we want the riches.

*Davis, B.P. and Knowles, E.S. (1999). A disrupt-then-reframe technique of social influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 2, 192-199. Fennis, B.M., Das, E.H.H.J. and Pruyn, Th.H.  (2004). “If You Can’t Dazzle Them with Brilliance, Baffle Them with Nonsense”: Extending the Impact of the Disrupt-Then-Reframe Technique of Social Influence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14, 3, 280-290. 

Categories: Uncategorized

‘Aspirational Nostalgia’ & Marketing in the Real World

September 12, 2013 Leave a comment

‘Aspirational Nostalgia’ & Marketing in the Real World


Whole Foods, the supermarket chain known — at least to marketers — for designing a shopping experience that taps into our evolutionary past as hunter-gatherers, is tapping into a different bit of our past. They’re going to start selling vinyl LPs.

Although this reflects a purchase trend among Millennials, I see it as an example of a much larger phenomenon I call ‘aspirational nostalgia’ – or the desire to look fondly back at things never actually experienced. This article takes a look at how marketers can meet this consumer want with authentic experiences that dissolve the lines between digital and the real world.

Creating a sense of nostalgia – even when the initial memory may have never actually existed – is a storytelling tactic that marketers have been employing for years. Tapping into a common, relatable moment in time can move consumers to feel an emotional ‘something’ that builds a stronger connection to your brand.

While fabricated feelings were effective in more traditional advertising, and especially in television, today’s multidimensional marketing landscape has given brands an unprecedented opportunity to create real memories based on real experiences.

The Allure of Made-up Memories

We can recall things we’ve experienced or learned – that’s the definition of memory. And it’s easier to remember things that have an emotional or personal meaning. That’s why we remember the song that was playing the day we fell in love, but struggle to remember the times-tables.

Nostalgia is a fond remembrance of the past and perhaps a desire to return to it, especially if it was a positive, happy, and meaningful memory. But consider this: Scientists have recently created memories of things that never happened – in a mouse for now, but “Total Recall” may not be too far away.

And perhaps that’s not as weird as it sounds, since real memories aren’t recordings of the past. They’re more an interpretation of the past, based on real events but with an overlay of interpreted meaning and what we wish had really happened.

So if memories can be faked and are influenced by interpretation and wishes, it makes sense that we may manufacture fond memories of things we wish had happened. Then those emotional nostalgic feelings would serve as evidence of having had that particular wish fulfilled. And we like having our wishes fulfilled.

This is “aspirational nostalgia” – wanting to be nostalgic for things we never actually experienced, and acting as though we are, in fact, nostalgic. We like that because those things would have been meaningful if only they’d actually happened. And we need meaning to be happy in our lives.

How technology fuels aspirational nostalgia

This theory of ‘aspirational nostalgia’ might explain the misty eyes that people who grew up on mp3 files have for vinyl records now. They grew up without them, but believe they were great, and so act like “the kind of person who” would have grown up with them if they could have. Same with the Instagram filters that add a sepia, Polaroid, or Kodachrome mood to our images.

Although every generation adopts and adapts the styles and posturing of earlier generations, I think what we’re seeing is an increase in passionate desire for meaning, not just a desire for artifacts of the past.

To some degree this might be explained as a reaction to the very cool and ironic distancing adopted by many people, a postured lack of caring, of emotional mediation and mitigation.  Our connection technologies become a distancing mechanism, not just enabling connection across geographic distance but also enabling disconnection from the physical world.

In fact, a study funded by the Nature Conservancy reported that a 38 percent drop in visits to national parks over the last 10 years was attributable to the rise in media coverage – after all, there’s no reason to get dirty if you can “experience” the out-of-doors from the cleanliness and comfort of your couch.

Why authentic experiences will become critical to marketing

When we take the Experience with a capital-E out of an experience, there’s not much there to create meaning. And as humans, our job is to make meaning out of the world so we can become who we are – we are not fully human when we’re disconnected from meaning.

Hummingbirds and butterflies will preferentially choose artificial sweeteners over flower nectar, but they soon starve to death. And we tend to forget philosopher Alfred Korzybski’s admonition that “the map is not the territory” – we lose ourselves in the representation of reality, not reality itself. Media designed with the goal of increasing engagement with everyday life can help us refocus on what it means to be human, to be alive, and to be world citizens. It should not provide Splenda for the social nutrition we need to live.

As marketers, we need to recognize this, that a full experience provides more than gamified access to a coupon, and that the divide between the “digital world” and the “real world” is false – in fact, the real world = the physical world + the digital world.

Integrated media needs to be more than mixing digital and traditional media. Our marketing needs to provide authentic experiences – that means multisensory, connected to the physical world, emotionally engaging, meaningful (or at least providing the architecture around which to build meaning).

When we strive to overcome ironic distancing and the disintermediation of experience, we provide the anchors that keep people connected to the world and to themselves. If we do this right, our brands and our marketing can help people fulfill their own promise in the present, with no need to manufacture a more fulfilling past.

NOTE: this post is also featured in the 360i blog

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Creative Technology – More than Semantics

April 3, 2013 1 comment

I wrote this as a response to an article on Digiday with which I took some issue. Read the article at


My response:

I think this article does a disservice to the idea of creative technology and to the direction our industry must be heading to be relevant.

There are three general orientations for how the term “Creative Technologist” is applied. The one highlighted in your article, that it’s a fad title to make people feel better, and the two that are, in my experience, more valid in the field – a technologist/programmer/developer whose function extends into a creative role and therefore expands what it means to be a technologist, and a creative person who is more than usually technologically savvy and uses that to expand what it means to be creative. Different agencies have different ways of thinking about what a Creative Technologist is and does but those appear to be the primary modes.

I wrote about this when I was founding head of the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter – https://markavnet.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/what-the-heck-is-a-creative-technologist/ and more recently as head of 360iU, 360i’s Education and Thought Leadership group – https://markavnet.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/is-this-the-end-of-the-creative-technologist/.

And yes, without falling back on the “everyone is creative” line, some technologists/programmers/developers have been exceptionally creative and some creative types have had very strong technology orientations since the beginning of time.

But I think you miss a much larger point. We’ve all heard the phrase “The Medium is the Message.” Many of us have used it without giving it a lot of thought. It’s usually interpreted to mean that the medium through which the message travels influences the message – e.g. some things work better on TV than they do on a mobile device.

McLuhan meant something larger, though – it’s not just that the attributes of the medium impose something on the content, but that the mere existence of the medium changes the world. Using the TV example – yes there are programs, but that television exists at all means that families are impacted, culture is impacted, that businesses exist to support the programming and distribution, that cable had to be invented, that terrestrial transmission had to be perfected, that satellites needed to be invented and launched, that things developed for military purposes could still contribute to the commercial success of the industry, that companies like TiVo could emerge, that advertising and media agencies had a reason to exist, that all the businesses that support advertising and media exist, etc.

I think the implication of the use of the term “Creative Technologist” has no less meaning. At a minimum, it means that those agencies who have creative technologists, or who have people functioning in those roles under different titles, have a different orientation about technology and creativity than those who don’t. These people are brought into the process early, not as part of the production model. They contribute to ideation, strategy, connections planning, media, innovative thinking in general – and they do this from the start, instead of when the “thing” is being made, or worse (and sadly more commonly), never.

That’s a sea change in our industry – to acknowledge AND THEN DO SOMETHING ABOUT the fact that people are connected, that technology is ubiquitous, that there is no longer any appreciable difference between “digital” and “the real world.” All communication is mediated, all experience is mediated, and often the mediation is facilitated through technology.

But silos are hard to break down – we want T-shaped thinkers (another way of describing creative technologists and other broad thinkers who have breadth in addition to depth), but most agency job descriptions could have been written in the Mad Men days.

One way to change thinking is to change language. Ultimately, I don’t care if the term Creative Technologist survives, But if we minimize the impact of this kind of thinking by ridiculing the concept, it becomes harder for the job descriptions to change, which means that the thinking doesn’t change, which limits what otherwise great companies will be able to do.

If we believe in innovation, we should be doing whatever we can to support what seems like a natural goal – better thinking and better work – rather than throwing up semantic roadblocks.

Categories: Uncategorized

Education in Advertising

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Education in Advertising

As I was writing this, 360i was named the best Search practice in the country by Forrester Research:

“360i receives top scores… due to its strong paid search and social media capabilities and for its unwavering strategic focus on employee and client education.”

Education matters.

I usually start writing these posts with a song in mind. I find that the internal soundtrack helps me find connections that I might otherwise miss.

The song that volunteered today was “Homework” by Al Perkins… I found a great live recording by Otis Rush… “Oh baby, I may be a fool, wasting my time by going to school… the way you got me loving you so – I can’t do my homework anymore.”

So – first, it’s great music and you should listen to the song. I also found a Wikipedia page listing songs about school that’s worth exploring.

Second – the lyrics speak to a challenge we face in agencies regarding education:

It’s not just love that’s a distraction from homework – all of our students have jobs.

Everyone wants to learn.

We’ve all had the wistful dream of heading back to school once there’s time. And one of the amazing opportunities at 360i for employees is an institutional focus on education and training – literally thousands of hours of training are available for employees. 360i takes it seriously enough that a year and half ago, I was brought in from VCU Brandcenter where I headed the Creative Technology track, to join as Dean of 360iU, our Education and Thought Leadership group, to make sure we not only expanded on useful training but also provide academic rigor to what we do.

And our employees and our clients love the idea! No surprise, because, as I said, everyone wants to learn.

So I came in, created a great curriculum. One of the assets we have is our world-class subject matter experts who are literally walking the halls, so we can credibly teach just about anything.

People signed up for classes, workshops, seminars. And a lot of them came, and got a lot out of them.


But with the inevitable last minute client deadlines, combined with the reality of a full work day plus another hour or two of classes (plus trying to have a semblance of life outside work)… it’s too easy to justify putting it off, hoping there’ll be another time to do it.

The classroom model doesn’t work in the agency world, at least most of the time.

Reality. What a drag.

So how to optimize the time that people do have available?

Same way we optimize marketing programs – understand where people are, what they’re doing and why, and go there and provide something useful to them in that context.

One thing that’s worked is bringing education and training into working teams focused on a client assignment. There’s no question about applicability – what’s being learning is being applied as it’s learned. Ideation sessions become learning opportunities that don’t feel like school, and we’re finding they lead to better, bigger, and more fully realized ideas.

A corollary is to focus on what can be done once you’ve learned something – learn this so you can do that. And most of the time that has to be more than “think differently.”

We’ve also made some sessions available at multiple times – 360i’s Friday morning fixture “Bagels with Berky” (led by David Berkowitz, our VP of Emerging Media and well-known pundit – blog, twitter) has added a “Beer with Berky” section to accommodate those who are morning-averse (and btw it’s not only the creatives).

We’ve added a timesheet category for training to make it easier for managers to plan and justify time allocations. The timesheet part was easy – the hard part for most agencies is that this requires real support at the top for investing time in education.

And sometimes a big class is the right thing to do. We’ve done a few trainings where we had the entire agency “in class” for 90 minutes every day for a week (with videos and presentation material available on our intranet for people who missed a session for client work or who joined the company after we ran those sessions). Programs like this are great for getting the agency up to the same marker, and for showing how important certain topics are to the agency.

And they’d better be important if you’re going to do that – it’s a serious financial investment by the agency, and a serious time investment by the people involved. Pulling hundreds of people out of their normal schedule is a major disruption.

Disrupt and reframe

Disruption only serves us if there’s something different on the other end – not chaos, but reframing. I’ll have another post soon on the disrupt-reframe change model, but for now let this suffice – disruption creates an opportunity for a new structure to take hold. So you need to think through what you want people to know AND DO differently at the other side, and provide ongoing support.

The reframe for us was not just being told that the subject is important to the agency, but that everyone has an individual responsibility to learn and apply what they’ve learned. Not a nice-to-have – it has to be a different world for everyone after that initial training, so ongoing reinforcement is key. Framing things as “learn this so you can do that” and then holding people accountable makes the result of the disruption actionable.

Speaking of accountability…

It’s not always easy to find a good metric for education – different ways of thinking aren’t really demonstrable except by output. So find proxies to measure instead. How many of your ideas, whether or not the client bought them, represent the incorporation of the “that” compared to ideas prior to the training? How has language within the agency changed to represent different ways of thinking compared to before? Have your clients noticed a change? Identify the appropriate measures for what you’re doing.

So – what’s the takeaway here?

As you think about how to roll out training and educational opportunities within your agency, you need to do more than just hire someone to come in and do a full-day training on “Digital” or “Mobile” or whatever the subject is. You have to do more than just offer resources like Lynda.com or other self-managed training. You have to do more than have a guest speaker on an interesting topic…

Have someone coordinate teaching – they don’t have to be expert in the subjects being taught, but they have to be experts in putting syllabi and curricula together (yes, those are the plurals). They need to guide the subject matter experts in your agencies to create programs with actionable outcomes, with a narrative flow, informed by knowledge of how people actually learn, and with flexibility enough to accommodate the realities of “client comes first.” Build the curriculum to the realities of the agency.

This requires making an investment – even if you’re using your own people to teach, you have to commit to investing in the opportunity cost of making employees available for the training. You have to make it important to everyone that they participate (carrots are better than sticks for that), and that there’s accountability for using what they’ve learned.

When you do this, your employees benefit, the quality of the work benefits, your reputation in the industry benefits, your clients benefit, and our industry is better able to be a credible and respectable force.

One more song to say goodbye

Besides, as James Brown sang with the Famous Flames, “Got to, got to, got to listen now… What do you say? Without an education, might as well be dead” – Don’t Be a Drop-Out!


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Is This The End of The Creative Technologist?

October 22, 2012 12 comments

(spoiler alert – see Betteridge’s Law of Headlines)

Music and Making Stuff

The guitarist in my college band didn’t know much about electronics, but when a guitar cord broke just before we went on stage (this was in the starving student days of no spare parts), he pulled out a huge old Weller soldering gun he probably could have done plumbing repairs with, and fixed it. It was sloppy, but it worked. His primary job was as a musician but he knew enough of the tools of technology to be able to repair simple things that he needed to make music.

A better-known example. Les Paul was a musician who heard something in his head and made some stuff to bring that sound into the world. He did it, not because he was an engineer, but because he was a musician. And in his quest to be the best musician he could be, he invented multi-track recording and the solid body guitar, and changed the face of music forever.

My primary job is education and thought leadership at 360i, but I also have a really nice soldering station in my office. In addition to thinking about and teaching stuff, I know lots of great ways to connect one thing to another (sometimes with Scotch tape or an API, and not molten lead). Occasionally, but all too rarely, I make something that no one else has thought of.


I’ve spent the last 15 years arguing the case for creative technology at agencies. As head of the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter I helped shape at least one definition of the role, have defended the emerging positions from the old-school Bernbackian purists, and helped aim dozens of truly smart and passionate CTs to some great agencies. Those of us who believe, teach, and promote have been gaining traction – there are now jobs called “creative technologist,” and departments where they work, and educational programs to support the jobs and the departments.

But I think it’s time we stop.

It’s time to stop talking about this stuff as though it’s something that needs to be installed, to be accommodated, or requires agency re-architecture.

The Mechanisms of Mediation Matter

It’s as simple as this. If your agency isn’t supporting the idea that influencing culture requires innate understanding of the forces that shape culture, if it doesn’t recognize that in a mediated, media-rich world, the mechanisms of mediation matter, well, it’s not going to go well for you.

Having a job title or a department isn’t enough. Too many people have taken on the official mantle of “Creative Technologist” who aren’t enough of a creative or a technologist to be successful in a newly created silo. Just as musicians need to understand appropriate technology to play music (remembering that music theory and scales are technology), all creatives (and strategists, and account folks, and…) need to understand technology and all technologists need to be creative (and strategic, and understand business, and…).

Attribute, Not Definition

There’s a crossover that’s necessary for the kind of work we need to do now in our business, and, in fact, to be a cultural contributor.

Even a “traditional” creative uses tools – paintbrush, pencil, fingers, camera, an innate or studied understanding of the psychology of color, of semiotics, of context, of persuasion, of rhetoric… Why, then, do we make such a big deal about also being able to use what appears to be (gasp!) technology as an integral and expected part of the thinking and expressive process?

“She’s got a soldering iron? Only put her on special projects…”

“He programs? No need to invite him to the ideation sessions…”

I’ve preached that being a creative technologist is more than having a toolset; it’s having a mindset. Being an active member of modern culture requires some of that mindset. Being successful in our industry requires that mindset to be the default, not something that’s switched on when it’s time to think about activation.

Creative technologist shouldn’t be a definition; it needs to be an attribute of what everyone does.

Is This The End?

So do I advocate firing the CTs you’ve got at your agency? Of course not – if they’re any good, they’re contributing creatively and strategically to your bottom line, and why on earth would you get rid of someone like that?

What I’m suggesting is that you hire more creatives and strategists who are great, who have as an attribute of what they do a decent working knowledge of mediation and culture and technology – and not segregate the roles into silos.

Hire creatives. Hire strategists. Hire technologists. Hire inventors. Call them what you want – but then let them be creative and strategic and technological and invention-y as a fundamental part of all the work you do, not as a black ops team or the “activation club.”

That creates an opportunity to rethink open positions, away from “we need three art directors and two copywriters, and a creative technologist” towards “we need six creatives.” Yes, you also need specialists, but they should be T-shaped… Same goes for strategists.

Everything’s Better with Pi

Hmm… Or even better, they should be pi-shaped, ∏, with one of the descenders being what we’ve been calling creative technology.

And where will you find these people? You’ll still get them from great programs like VCU Brandcenter, NYU’s ITP, and others. And if you let the world know what you’re looking for, you’ll find that there are more of “them” in the wild than you suspected. Some may already be in your agency, but may need to know that it’s okay to express their inner-CT. And you may have to grow some – by the way, most people you’d want in your agency long-term are lifetime learners, so developing an internal education program is a powerful recruiting/retention tool.

Our industry’s job is to create authentic reasons for consumers and shoppers to support our client’s brands – and authenticity requires fluency in culture and the drivers of culture.

When the kind of thinking that’s currently segregated to the creative technology wheelhouse infuses everything we do and everybody who does it, our job will be much, much easier.

Failure is Not an Option

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Failure is Good
Failure is good! We hear this all the time, “We need to fail. It’s okay to fail! Celebrate your failures!” At VCU Brandcenter, we’ve had speaker after speaker come to our Friday Forum who, among other things, implore us to, “Embrace failure!” We tell our students that school is a safe place to fail. And we’ve all heard (and probably said) one of the recent buzz-phrases in our industry, “Fail early, fail often!”

We’re training people to brag about their failures.

Failure is Bad
Problem is, failure is bad. Failure means not succeeding. Failure means not finding the insight that would have made a difference in the campaign, or the creative execution that makes that insight real. Failure means not hitting the deadline, and hey, they’re not going to hold up the Super Bowl because your ad isn’t ready yet. Failure means not doing what our clients hired us to do. Failure means staring at the ceiling instead of sleeping, wondering if you or your agency have work in the morning.

And from a psychological standpoint, failure leads to more failure, as we begin to expect and accept failure instead of success – or if we celebrate failure as an end in itself.

Lipstick on a pig, polishing a… well, you get it. It still stinks no matter how you dress it up.

If you stop at “Failing equals Good,” you’re missing the point. It’s like giving everyone a gold star for effort. Or explaining that the key to hitting the ball out of the park is holding the bat.

Woody Allen is famously quoted as saying, “Eighty-five percent of success is showing up.” I love Woody, especially his earlier funny films, (by the way, that was a Woody reference) but I think he got it wrong.

A lot of people show up – but it’s the other fifteen percent of what they do that makes the difference between failure and success.

Necessary but not Sufficient
It’s important to understand the difference between “necessary” and “sufficient.” Things that are necessary have to be present for something to happen, but other things may also have to be there. Things that are sufficient are all that’s necessary. Showing up is necessary, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

Failing may be necessary (and I’m not convinced it is), but it is never sufficient to bring success.

The key is to LEARN from failing and then ACT on that learning; without those, you’re just showing up and you might as well not have done anything in the first place.

That’s the part that keeps getting overlooked in these attempts to make a really great sound bite homily. Failure isn’t good. Learning is good. Applying what you’ve learned is good. Success is good. Learning from errors is good.

To quote Kelly O’Keefe, Managing Director at VCU Brandcenter, “Like most people. I’ve experienced failure firsthand. It’s not pleasant. It affects you. It affects others. It sets you back. I don’t think you’ll find a professional athlete or coach saying ‘let’s go out there and embrace failure’.”

Because the point isn’t to lose, it’s to win.

Embrace Learning, Not Failing
At agencies where I’ve had any influence, we held post-mortem meetings on every project, regardless of outcome. We tore our work and the results to shreds, looking for mistakes we’d made, things we should have anticipated, things that went exactly how we hoped, things that didn’t. We not only identified thing that went wrong, we came up with plans on how to avoid doing them next time – we focused on learning from our mistakes, not hiding from them, and certainly not celebrating them. When things worked well, we focused on learning how to apply that success in the future – on what made it work, when it might work again, and when it was likely not to work in the future.

And we kept getting better.

It’s not failing that’s good, it’s learning from failure that leads you incrementally towards success that’s good. To paraphrase Chip and Dan Heath in their excellent book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. But you’ll never know which is which unless you go out of your way to look for it.

Call to action time – In order to avoid celebrating failure as an end in itself, examine every project, regardless of whether it worked or didn’t – then identify specifically what worked and specifically what didn’t, and come up with a simple plan to avoid doing what didn’t work again, and to do more of what did.

To quote Disney’s animated Meet The Robinsons, a film that in many ways is about overcoming failure, “If I gave up every time I failed, I would have never invented the meatball cannon!” But that only works if, in the words of the kids in South Park, you can honestly say, “You know, I learned something today.”

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