May 20, 2009

Redefining Failure

For years success and failure have been finite notions in the ad business. An ad either worked or it didn’t. A campaign was a resounding success or a dismal failure.

There were three pressing reasons for that:

First, there was the cost of changing things. A photo shoot was expensive; a TV shoot even more so. So there was no room for error. Even recording a few alternate takes for an ending was regarded as a profligate waste of money. After all, wasn’t the agency sure that the campaign would work? And that was the model that got many of the top people in the traditional ad business to where they are now: the ability to convince a client that the campaign they were presenting was the key to the kingdom of heaven, and that any slight variation or tweak would surely lead the brand into perfidy and damnation. And faith, as we shall see, played a huge role in this, since there was no measurable way to see if the campaign was actually working.

The second reason is the campaign mentality: ads were to run for a brief and clearly defined period of time, never to be seen again. It was easier to scrap the entire campaign and start afresh than to try and make adjustments midstream.

The final reason was the lack of any realistic feedback. Ad testing, of the sort performed on already-produced ads was one of the great scams of the twentieth century. (To the point that people unfamiliar with the process often assumed you were joking, since no one could really be that gullible. But I digress.) Without any sort of realistic consumer feedback, brands and agencies had nothing but their gut to go on: with so many factors coming into play from the weather to major news events, sales may or may not have been tied to advertising—it was hard to tell. So they didn’t.

But the current state of digital media changes all that. We can tell if ads are working: not from the number of click-throughs, but from the amount and type of buzz they’re generating. Are consumers taking away the ideas we want them to? Is there something else they want to know about? By listening in on the conversations going on online, it’s easy (okay—easier) to learn where the tweaks need to be made.

And the relatively low cost of digital media means it’s easier to make them.

But that’s easier said than done. If this is to become the status quo, we’ll need to see a real behavior shift on the part of both ad agencies and brand marketing departments. One that says that accepts that advertising is more gray than black and white, that acknowledges the increased visibility of consumers in the conversation, and, more than anything, accepts the fact that failure is relative and can be seen as either fatal or a learning experience.

Now that’s not to give carte blanche to bad advertising and dumb ideas. Far from it. Agencies will have to come up with better ideas and learn from the executions. But they need to be able to take some risks rather than become paralyzed by the fear of failure, to put things out there before they’re fully baked and let the market determine where they end up.

Twitter is a great example of what I’m talking about. Clearly they were onto something with the idea. The execution, however, has it’s flaws (instability, for instance) that users are willing to forgive because they like the idea of Twitter. Moreover, the platform has evolved in response to user preferences and user input (kinda, sorta) over the past two years. So what could have been viewed as a failure the first time the infamous Fail Whale showed up, is now viewed as a brilliant experiment. (Or a brilliant experiment that overlooked the “how do we make money from this” question.) Either way, there's no denying both its popularity and effect on the culture. Neither which would have happened had the engineers waiting until the code was absolutely, 100% perfect.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but if the ad industry is to remain relevant, it does need to happen.

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