Strategists: Start Getting It Wrong

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Watching the game last Sunday night, I couldn’t help but see a pattern of over-correction from the 2017 marketing strategy of major brands. Humor won the night and there is nothing wrong with that, but as a strategist, I wondered why the canon of this year’s Super Bowl work was in such stark contrast to that of 2017. My suspicion is that keeping things light was driven by anxiety, and I think the swift reaction to Dodge Ram using Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is proof. As is the SNL Cheetos sketch. In it, two agencies are competitively pitching the brand, but one lays out concept after concept that puts hot-button cultural moments at the center of a story that has absolutely no connection to the brand, consumer or category. After that sketch I think the entire advertising industry had to take a long, nervous look in the mirror because satire was getting real close to reality, and the public, our customers, were pointing and laughing. I think agencies’ apprehension to find the right ways to use serious cultural currency to connect is going to continue to increase.

So, what’s the big deal? It seems simple, right? Just don’t use a historical, cultural moment to sell trucks. Yeah. It’s not that simple. As a strategist, it’s my job to help clients and brands find the right course of action based on research, market environments, customer appetite and competitive analysis. This role requires honing and implementing the skill of distillation. We gather as much information as we can and make it actionable for our clients, creative, and media teams. The plan, whatever it may end up being, has millions of our clients’ dollars riding on it, which is why we are on an incessant quest to get it right. And there is A LOT of pressure to get it right. Right is what is expected. Right is what they are paying for.

However, right is extremely risk-averse. Right is a little less flexible. Right isn’t as creative. Right isn’t vulnerable. Right is driven by logic, data and absolutism. Right usually leads to foregone conclusions, which results in expected work. That is why right feels good and why the opposite feels bad. As human beings we will do some crazy things to avoid being wrong.

The problem is, somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten or are too scared to remember that the only way to make powerful, meaningful work is by finding the wrong, first. Our clients will work hard to take the uncertainty out of what we do. It’s our job to push them and to make them reasonably uneasy.

Wrong is where the lessons are learned, it’s in the distress that things evolve. If you don’t allow for private space to get it wrong, the missteps will happen publicly and on a much bigger stage. Just ask Nivea, Special K or H&M, and we know that list goes on and on. So why is being wrong not built into the system by now? Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, says “We are not victims of our situation. We are the architects of it.”

What can we do to build environments where there’s space for this important, but often overlooked, step of being wrong?

Get real with each other and our clients

Wrong doesn’t always happen after we’ve been given the problem or the assignment. Wrong needs to happen at every step of the way. I’ve been briefed by clients numerous times with the words: “what is our Ice Bucket Challenge?” If an advertising agency was asked to create “The Ice Bucket Challenge,” they would have failed. While it’s heralded as one of the most successful viral “campaigns” of all time, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a marketing idea at all, and that’s why it was right. To get it “right” we must be able to say, this is the wrong problem, challenge, audience or strategy. These conversations, of course, need to be followed quickly by a – “here’s why and here is how we will shift” – because the goal of recognizing when things are wrong is to find what is right.

Schedule time for failure

We already know really good work takes time. We also know that our schedules and timelines are getting shorter, and the pace of media is ever-quickening –everything is getting squeezed hard. Building in the time to get things wrong should not be a luxury, it should be a mandatory and practiced early and often. As sprints, prototyping and ways of working that haven’t always been at the core of our business, permeate the process, we should look for models that already have failure built in and then adopt or adapt them.

Demand debate and dissent

Competition can be an amazing catalyst for creativity and speed. Debate and dissent are much better ways to get to new ideas. However, there’s a built-in antagonism in both modes of operation, which if not handled properly will foster the opposite result – silence. To let wrong happen, you must create the space where it’s welcomed and even better, expected. You can’t see what sticks if you’re only throwing what feels “right” at the wall. You can’t proactively solve the client’s issue if you haven’t asked the “why won’t it work?”, question. We must find ways for every voice in the room to feel there is value in being the person who shines a spotlight on the wrong, with the intention of helping the team get it right.

All of this is to say, we have put effort into this, which is a contributing factor in why it doesn’t happen. We need to create the space that begs for vulnerability in the same way we ask for preparedness, accountability and hard work. Plenty has been written about vulnerability in leadership, but for those of us yet to get to the top of that pyramid – or those who are willing to admit they don’t want to be a leader, I think this is about driving behavior change at every level, not simply at the top. Mastery requires making a mess of things. It’s what you do with that mess that truly matters.

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  1. Great article, and a reminder that success is often a by-product of failure. Often, it’s also the epic fail that goes viral, not the raging success. If there is no such thing as bad PR, then bad can equal good.

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