Lessons from Failure
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, as the twee proverb says
08 June 2022
Without wishing to borrow too many Forrest Gump-style aphorisms, life has a habit of chucking a spanner in the works from time to time.
In the workplace, failures can haunt you if you let them. So don't. Learn from them and move on.
In that spirit we asked some of advertising's top brass to confess to their biggest workplace failure, how they embraced it, learned from it and then carried on progressing up the career greasy pole.
Chris Hirst, global chief executive, Havas Creative
People like hearing about failure because we can all learn from it. John Cleese said failure without learning is just failure. Any great success involves great failures along the way, failure is a necessary pre-requisite for success and that’s an inspiring thought.
But we tend to hear about failure from people who are successful. We’re happy to talk about it retrospectively, through the lens of success. And I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable talking about it at the time when I was in the middle of it.
When you’re in the middle of it, and it’s happening to you, it’s horrible.
The period of my life I’d look back on and say was a failure that made me was the early days when I joined Grey London. I was brought in as part of a team of young turks who were going to turn the agency around. But nemesis followed hubris and after six years the agency was still shit, all the other turks had gone on to great jobs elsewhere and I was the only one left. I’d been passed over at least three times for the CEO role but after a few well-timed lucky bounces I was finally made CEO.
I remember really clearly thinking that after six years of failure, the one thing I wasn’t going to do was make all the same mistakes we had been making. That sounds obvious, and easy, but for six whole years we’d been making the same mistakes over and over. But that clarity of deciding to stop repeating the same errors allowed us to be properly iconoclastic.
I think now that it’s really important to have authenticity in the way you lead. You don’t necessarily need to make yourself vulnerable, as a leader; you can’t sit in an open-plan office with your head in your hands when things aren’t going right. But you do need people around you who you can be vulnerable with, who you can put your head in your hands with and be honest with, and who will tell you when you’re being a dick. I think being authentic, sincere and honest are also important elements of great leadership, alongside learning from your own failures.
Larissa Vince, chief executive, TBWA\London
There was a time not long after I got into advertising, when I questioned whether it was the right industry for me. I loved the work, but I felt very different from the team around me, believed that my background (I was a journalist before I got into advertising) meant my opinions weren’t important, and just generally thought I was out of place.
So I tried really hard to fit in. I tried to act more corporate, the way I thought people wanted me to act. I stopped doing the things that made me me. And of course those were exactly the things that had made me good in the first place.
In terms of failures, I guess there were loads. Asking for permission all the time made me too slow. I stopped running at problems and tried not to rock the boat (anyone who knows me will know this is very unlike me!). I sort of lost my voice. It made me unhappy. And I certainly lost the agency some opportunities as a result.
Luckily I woke up to myself and realised I needed to get a grip. Now, authenticity in leadership is extremely important to me. The person I bring to work is the person I am – there’s no professional mask. I believe being authentic is the best way to build trust – with teams, with clients, with everyone. And that celebrating our differences is what makes our team better.
Andrew Stephens, founder, Goodstuff
Attempting to find a mistake in my career was harder than I thought - paralysis of choice some might say.
I settled on a dreadful email mistake in 2014. The overly passionate, bordering on angry email many of us contemplate sending, but 99.9 per cent of the time don’t, I regrettably did on this occasion.
At the time we were working with (what would turn out to be) a high spending DTC business and its two (soon to be famous), founders.
We were engaged pre-launch to help with planning and modelling and the hope was to become their chosen launch agency. However, the founders secured greater financial backing and decided to call a full-scale pitch.
It wasn’t ideal, but we accepted the challenge and came away feeling confident we’d continue working with them.
That obviously changed when PHD were confirmed the winners.
In trying to explain the decision, one of the founders outlined the rationale which, left me somewhat bewildered as the email couldn't have been more complementary about Goodstuff.
I couldn’t make sense of it. Something seemed odd. Wrong even. So, after stewing on it for a few days, I responded.
I won’t go into what I said, but in that moment felt I had the right to be frank and so I was.
It felt good, no, it felt amazing, for a nanosecond. You rarely (and I now know why), get the chance to tell clients exactly what you think, for fear of future reprisal.
But it was a mistake. Pitches come and go. You win some, you lose some and that's the way things are in agencies.
My advice is to get comfortable with pitch decisions you don’t like. It's nothing personal, so don't take it as such. There will be others.
And if that’s not enough, remember, our industry is small, and you never know where a client may later pop up.
Which brings me on to the twist in this tale.
The founder I sent ‘that’ email to was none other than Michael Bruce. Yes, you guessed it, the co-founder of Purplebricks.
Michael is now the co-founder of Boomin an important and highly valued Goodstuff client.
Thankfully, Michael didn’t take my 2014 email response personally and instead, took note of my motivations for sending it and moved on. We have since discussed ‘that’ email and forged a great work relationship.
The next time you think about sending ‘that’ email to a client... don’t.
Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer, MediaCom UK
Personally I am on a constant learning programme in terms of leadership. Every day I must check my privilege, understand my impact, and try and empathise with others. I think empathy is something you have to practise constantly and consciously.
Research shows that when people try and predict the inner thoughts and motivations of others they get it right about 52 per cent of the time (on an either or question when chance would get it right 50 per cent of the time). People almost universally think that they are better at this than they are (on average they think they get it right 70 per cent of the time). 50:50 on an either or question is basically random. How much harder is it then to show real empathy for another? Yet this is the key to unlocking belonging in the work place, and a very key skill for people in the business of creative communications – to have empathy with clients and their consumers.
Sam Hawkey, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
If you've been in this business long enough, you are eternally grateful to the long list of people who have let you fail and helped you fix it. I, for once, sit in that fortunate place and, if we're honest, still do.
Recently I've been thinking about and talking to lots of the more junior members of the team and trying to recreate that feeling of being at the sharp end of delivery. That position has a unique pressure that literally means the work we've worked so hard to make sees the world or not.
And that's probably the failure that sticks out the most. At the wonderful glue London, working on a remake of Old Spice's "Man on a horse" for The Sun newspaper. Fast paced, lots of legals, and a ton of deliverables. One for the consummate account person - or a disorganised, over his head and eager to please Account Executive.
The short story is one of supplying The Sun with a legally and Unilever unapproved and contentious ad which they ran without telling us because of a link I supplied. No one else's fault, and of course, the agency was liable if it was to go the wrong way.
My gut dropped as I walked over to Mark Cridge (glue CEO), who simply said, "I know how hard you've worked on this, so get me the detail, and I will sort it". And he did. Not only that, there was no repercussion, strong talking to or cold shoulder.
It's something glue and AMV uniquely share, and it's one that our Deputy Head of Account Management Alex Sandford-Smith summed up when I met her - "Everyone here is trying to do the best work of their life, and they try so hard to make that happen, so there's no reason to be an arsehole".
It made me think of the old saying - a principle isn't a principle until it costs you something. Well, leadership isn't leadership until you have to show empathy in the hardest of moments.
So, Mark taught me something in that failure that I try to use now. I still lose my lunch every time I think about it, though!