Digital Essays: Beware of Caution

In these challenging times, we all need to dial up the digital bravery factor. Experimentation, rather than playing it safe, must be the order of the day.

You know how it is. You've just heard that a parent or grandparent has gone out and bought a new laptop, DVD player or digital camera. And you feel your heart sinking. Not because you aren't pleased for them, of course. It's because you know that in a week's time, you're going to get one of those phone calls asking what a "defragmenter" or a "jpeg" is; or "why does this box keep popping up?"

It's become one of the great cliches of our time - that young people are much better at mastering hi-tech gadgetry than older people. And children, of course, are best of all. Buy your seven-year-old a Nintendo DS and you won't get a single question from them about their new console, ever - apart from requests for more pocket-money to buy more games: they just get on with it.

We all know this is true. What we haven't asked is why it's true. Just why do young people make better technology users than their elders? It's not as if they're good at everything - driving, for example. You certainly wouldn't hand your son the keys to your car on his 17th birthday, would you?

One thing that makes children such fast learners - and, equally, such dangerous drivers - is that they're not afraid of getting it wrong. Through their natural bravado and experimentalism, they do two things that are essential to progress in both the "real" world and the digital world. They fail. They fail a lot. They fail quickly. But, just as quickly, they learn from their mistakes. And it is through their repeated fumblings and errors that what is extremely complex to people in their forties and fifties becomes instinctively, unconsciously straightforward to kids barely out of nappies.

I think we (and by we, I mean agencies, clients and anyone else with a stake in the digital marketing space) need a bit more of this same spirit of bravery and experimentation if we're to make the most of the opportunities before us.

Here's why we can experiment without too much fear. First, in digital marketing, the cost of failure is pretty low; second, the speed of learning can (and should) be spectacularly fast.

In terms of the effects of bravery, conventional marketing is a little like driving a car. One error can be catastrophic. At best, your mistakes are expensive, at worst you may not survive long enough to learn from them. I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting the roads to be kept free of people learning to drive through a process of trial and error.

The cautious approach we often (quite rightly) adopt in conventional marketing, however, is a failing when applied to the digital world.

In the analogue world, a mistake is expensive, visible and usually painful. There's still an upside to risk, but it's generally limited. In the digital world, your failures are mostly invisible, manageable and fast-forgotten. Most importantly, they're educational. You can learn from them and move on.

As for your successes, they can be almost limitless. In a recent series of tests for American Express performed by Neo @ Ogilvy (our digital planning and buying arm), we found half of our responses came from a single "outlier" medium - a medium that, before testing, seemed so niche we were almost inclined to leave it off the schedule. What's the long-term value of a discovery like that? Immeasurable. What would the opportunity cost have been if we had been too timid to try it? Doesn't bear thinking about.

I still don't think most of our industry is being brave enough; there's still a tendency to adopt a "whatever happens, don't make a mistake" mentality left over from the past. We need to realise that in the digital world there is a price to be paid for caution, just as much as there is for foolhardy overconfidence. Or, to put it another way, if you've never missed a flight, you've probably spent too much of your life waiting around at airports.

If you never do anything that fails, you probably aren't learning enough. As one of David Ogilvy's clients explained when asked whether he would fire an employee who had just made a serious gaffe: "Hell, no, I fire people who don't make mistakes." The client was right. This is a core bravery principle.

There's another cost to caution which gets overlooked. Being cautious is very slow, and this damages one of the great virtues of digital, which is that you can learn and respond to that learning very fast; it's the same in nature - the animals with the shortest life-cycles evolve and adapt to changing conditions the fastest. It's often better to be 90 per cent right in a week than 100 per cent right in a month.

What digital gives us as marketers is the equivalent of flight simulators for pilots. Digital is a space where we can afford to experiment and in the process become better, both rationally and instinctively, at what we do.

There's plenty of evidence as to how valuable this safe form of experimentation can be - it's a well-known fact that realistic flight simulation software has transformed the reliability of air transportation, with a fall in the number of accidents due to human error down 71 per cent. Since 2001, there has only been one fatal jetliner accident in the US attributable to pilot error.

Our business is not a life or death matter, but occasionally we do have to make big decisions based on little more than our own instincts and experience. Thankfully, we have a place to hone our instincts.

Ogilvy once said that regular exposure to success and failure honed one's instincts brilliantly. Were he alive today, I am sure he would be in his element.

- Annette King is the chief executive at OgilvyOne London