How we learned to stop worrying and love failure

Jonathan Burley, Executive creative director, CHI & Partners.

Jonathan Burley, executive creative director, CHI & Partners.
Jonathan Burley, executive creative director, CHI & Partners.

The fear of failure is far less damaging to any adlander than the fear of taking risks. Indeed, as these top industry figures have discovered, success quite often stems from making mistakes.

I was lucky enough to have the most liberal of agency upbringings. With ad-dads as beatnik as Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott, young creatives at HHCL were never going to be taught to play it safe and regurgitate old D&AD ads as if the Annual were something to be learnt by rote. They passionately believed that the only genuine risk a client took was asking for quiet creative work that would mumble its way through an ad break. If someone were to have the nuts to suggest to either of them that an idea were "brave", Ax's tiny ears would rear back in shock and Steve's mad laugh would echo across the agency. The laugh would go on a little bit too long and end in a wheezy Muttley-esque coughing fit. Happy days.

As such, my career at HHCL was heavily peppered with creative "risks" that didn't always pan out as well as one would hope. I had a run of TV ads that were all banned at one point or another, including one that provoked a tabloid newspaper to run an article with the headline: "BULLIED FAT BOY AD BAN." There was a still from the ad accompanying the piece, with the subtitle: "Creepy." My mum was terribly proud.

But the risks weren't really all that risky, to be honest. Not proper risky. Not a single one of the melodramatically banned ads did anything other than sell shitloads of FMCG stuff.

And our clients at HHCL as a whole agreed with us. It's why they were there in the first place. I fondly remember sitting in a presentation to a rather wonderful client as we all became hysterical watching the first cut of their new ad campaign. It featured a member of staff stalking a customer, Fatal Attraction-style, becoming progressively darker until it culminated in a deeply unpleasant shower-based ad.

Oh how we laughed. Right up to the point when the client left for another job and we lost the business.

Ed Morris, Executive creative director, Rapier

I like not to believe there's such a thing as failure or success. It's all only information, isn't it? I've never found good thinking comes from those obvious, dramatic, black-and-white, right-or-wrong kinds of comparisons.

Here is something I'll label as failure to make a point. Something I've learnt from to improve the nature of the day and the work.

As a younger person, I was shy with a big ego. That's a terribly frustrating combination. Like having all of the bullets without the gun. It's one common to the introverted creative spirit. I was too ambitious. I saw nothing but the work. And nothing but the work gets you to good work. It fulfils the ego in the journey that most I've met in advertising are on. A journey described by Shakespeare as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

What you miss on a path like this is quite vast. The day-to-day momentary interactions that form a relationship with humanity mean little to you. Moments that give life quality, texture and meaning.

For creative types, a relationship with the world around them is often only possible through their work.

That makes for incredible film, poetry, music and comedy, but an unfulfilled soul. It's why you're never satisfied with what you do. It's an illusion in which you think everyone knows you, when the truth is no-one knows you.

For me now, it's more about people and connection. What I'm describing here is an evolution in the journey from practitioner to manager. Growing up.

As a young creative, you swim against the tide; you're an antagonist. You're out to screw the world. But you can't be angry with everyone forever. You can't sustain that and continue to find meaning.

To be your best and get the best from others, you have to connect. It's a mutual world. In pursuit of the work, I failed at this often; now I'm getting it right more often.

Marc Mathieu, Senior vice-president, marketing, Unilever

The fear of failure stifles creativity, drains confidence and promotes the status quo. But taking risks is always hard - at work, in life. Developing a culture in which marketers are driven by doing what they believe is right and in which they are unshackled from the fear of failure is critical.

Our new marketing strategy "crafting brands for life" is centred around developing passion, intuition for people, and using it to "unlock the magic" of our brands, of our marketing. Only then can our marketers and agencies embrace the idea of trying new, untested ideas if they believe they will lead to fantastic results.

When these ideas pay off, we'll celebrate the outcome of the risk-taking. When they don't, what's important is that we face up to the fact that it hasn't worked and learn from the experience.

Laurence Green, Founding partner, 101

Remember that great Sony ad? You know, the one where the Hollywood sound crew visit Dominic and Laura to thank them for buying a Wega TV. No?

How about the one where the special-effects guys ring on some bloke's door in the middle of the night to do likewise? No, I thought not.

At the time of writing, these two belters have racked up just 94 and 362 views on YouTube respectively.

But the Sony commercials you don't remember were the immediate forerunners to one you might remember, known simply as "balls" - YouTube count: many millions and still rising.

And we couldn't have done "balls" without them.

Our first work at Fallon after winning Sony's pan-European consumer electronics account, they were well-written, nicely cast and ably directed by a then wet-behind-the-ears Ringan Ledwidge.

On the other hand, they were about as un-European as pan-European ads could be, loaded not just with British advertising conceit but with wall-to-wall dialogue, both of which travelled about as well as Ian Rush (the Liverpool striker, unhappily exiled to Juventus, famously described life in Italy as "like living in a foreign country").

They say success has its roots in failure, however, and so we would have unusually strong roots for the launch the following year of the Bravia sub-brand, Sony's replacement for the underperforming Wega.

We resolved to design a launch commercial (it only later turned into content) that was - in stark contrast to its forebears - effortlessly global. A diminutive mullet-topped Argentinian, a man-child who had recently joined the agency on a free transfer from Mother and who trained alone rather than with the rest of the squad, knew just how.

Juan Cabral (for it was he) suggested "we bounce thousands of balls down a hill and film it". We asked him to turn this mere bagatelle of an idea into a proper script.

Two weeks later, he came back with: "We bounce thousands of balls down a hill and film it." (He was right, of course.)

And so Sony's, Fallon's and maybe even advertising's fortunes shifted.

But it all started with Dominic and Laura.

Robert Senior, Chief executive, EMEA, SSF Group

In 1991, two young turks were put on the vastly over-populated board at DMB&B - one, Chris Robson; the other, Robert Senior. Naive, ambitious and eager to make a difference.

The gravity of our position was explained in solemn terms at our formal briefing meeting. At 26, we were the youngest board members in the company's history and the seriousness of our responsibility was made very clear to us. For instance, as board directors, we were now personally liable should the company be found guilty of any financial mispropriety. The briefing contained only the dark clouds of exposure and seemed rather light on any upside.

The only real executive power held by the board was the power to disband itself. All other aspects of the agency were rightly run by the much smaller management team.

Chris and I concluded that, beyond flattery, the only material upside of our new altitude was finding out before anyone else where the Christmas party would be held. We reasoned that as the board was held in contempt by the rest of the agency, to best serve our colleagues and the brand, the board should face its moral responsibility and exercise its only right: self-destruction. And so we set about gathering allies. Nearly everyone we approached on the board seemed to be in agreement. Things were looking good.

The meeting came and we tabled our motion. We lobbied, the vote was cast and we failed spectacularly. Virtually all of the people who had promised their support before the meeting voted against the motion.

Our day of reckoning started with a typed memo on our desks from the great Peter Davies. It read: "To Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Watch out for the man in the straw hat."

I don't remember feeling any regret or, in fact, surprise. What I felt was liberation. The episode offered a moment of binary clarity and my career path changed course from that day. A day when the true cost of principles came into sharp focus. And, funnily enough, it felt good, and still does.