Progress will only happen if there is jeopardy

Making mistakes is no bad thing. Learning from them is what will make you a better marketer.

Secret MarketerI started drafting my latest column a fortnight ago on Bud Light after the brand was boycotted by far-right activists over its partnership with transgender TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney. It focused on the fact in most cases consumers don’t give a shit about brands. That people moaning about Anheuser-Busch’s choice of influencer probably don’t drink Bud Light nor ever will. And how brands have a long and celebrated history of finding interesting ways to get infrequent buyers to notice and hopefully remember their brand. On balance I saluted its strategic approach to address declining sales, and its use of disruptive tactics.

Sleeping on the article for a few days, as I often do, I got distracted at work, and it slipped my mind, until I read earlier this week its share price had plummeted, and its vice-president of marketing, Alissa Heinerscheid, had been given the boot. All because of its choice of influencer. What a bizarre world we live in. It speaks to a corporate culture of fear, blame and overreaction. Let’s see if mediocrity will serve it better commercially.

My intention was to write a column on daring to be different, to challenge and be disruptive. The need for marketers to cut through and build new and fresh associations for their brands. To focus on being remembered. To help their brand become an unconscious choice. But instead I find myself wanting to celebrate the brave ones. The pioneers. The ones that fail.

The value of jeopardy

You see, creativity and progress only happen if there is jeopardy. No risk equals no break through thinking to overcome barriers to growth. And, as Anheuser Busch has just found out, with risk can come reputation damage. But what are you going to do? You can’t rewind time. You certainly can’t stop trying to solve the growth problem effectively and efficiently.

Creating a culture of risk aversion, and playing it safe, won’t take the business forward, it will just reinforce decline. No, businesses need to embrace the brave ones. The iconoclasts. The ones who dare to be different, and move things forward. Yes, things will go wrong. But that isn’t failure, it’s learning. Failure is a leadership more concerned about the media and politics, than celebrating growth, and those who are trying to achieve it.

I have become a better marketer and leader through the humility of my cock ups.

Many marketers work in organisations that fear failure more than they want success. It’s why I moved in-house. As an ad executive I experienced too many clients at brands where they were incentivised on outputs not outcomes. To be busy was good. To create breakthrough campaigns and risk failure was frowned on. What I saw was a culture of fear and a celebration of inanity. Being a cocksure 30-year-old, I decided I could do better.

Close to 20 years later I certainly have had my fair share of failures. But there have been more successes. Perhaps as importantly as those successes, or indeed because of them, I have become a better marketer and leader through the humility of my cock ups. Turkey of the week in the Guardian hurt. Canning a campaign after sinking £100k into its development because it just wasn’t a good idea was a real stinker, and getting an ad pulled by the ASA still rankles nearly a decade on – though not as much as the dressing down I got from my boss. Not due to my lack of repentance at the ASA ruling, but because I hadn’t prepped him soon enough on the issues to manage the CEO proactively.

The point being, I only learned to be a better commercially driven marketer through making mistakes, reflecting on them and adjusting my approach to be more effective in the future. Maybe that’s something other brands and marketing leaders should reflect on too, if they want a culture of success and growth.