Trailblazing: Failing to Succeed

In a new series, the headhunter LIZH seeks out ideas, trends and people who are applying creativity in new and different ways. First up, LIZH examines the notion of failure and how embracing it can lead to great success

Harnessing great creativity can be like catching lightning in a bottle, particularly in the multimedia, hyperconnected age, when the answer to a brand’s challenge may not be as simple as a great piece of TV or print.

As clients look to their agencies to help negotiate this environment, the solutions can be broad – social media, apps, new products and even advertising. But, as agencies skill up, there is often a missing element: risk.

Being prepared to fail is essential for agencies to succeed but one that many dismiss. Nick Grime, a partner at the creative industry headhunter LIZH, says: "Agencies are almost pre-programmed to never fail and always get it right. But, sometimes, you have to risk failure in order to learn quickly and make greater gains in the future."

While industry awards such as D&AD and Cannes Lions reward creative excellence, with agencies judged against specific categories, this doesn’t always foster a spirit of experimentation in the creative process, according to Bonnie Harold, another partner at LIZH. There is a different attitude found in the new breed of innovation incubators.

Banaie created the Tapestry loyalty shopping app

Embodying this spirit of experimentation is the former Topshop marketing chief Justin Cooke, who came up with the new social media network Tunepics while out walking. It was based on a gut instinct that it was a great idea, and his entrepreneurial drive took over.

Cooke is also challenging the ad industry on its own turf with his agency, Innovate7, which promises to help brands define their futures. "What we are seeing is a new breed who call themselves ‘adpreneurs’. These are creatives who think about a business problem, deep-dive into the product, change it, mould it, even create it, and bring it to market," Harold says.

Niku Banaie, the founder of The Upside, which bills itself as an innovations consultancy, says embracing failure is not part of the remit of traditional agencies. The Upside created Tapestry, a loyalty shopping app now being used by Liberty.

Banaie explains: "We spotted trends and developed it ourselves, taking the risks and gaining the learnings that loop back into the business. Projects like this open doors to clients as it shows we are versatile, and they like that entrepreneurial streak."

Many big agencies profess a lab culture where experimentation is encouraged to help produce insights to serve clients. However, Banaie believes such initiatives do not go far enough: "They are often great trend-spotting labs but don’t actually make anything. I don’t think Tapestry could have been spawned in a big shop. There isn’t the focus on taking commercial risk."

Cooper introduced 'rapid creative development

Brian Cooper, a creative partner at Dare, agrees that agencies are afraid of failure, which he blames on their processes. "They operate within a linear bureaucratic hierarchy, where things have to go through so many stages," he admits. "It’s slow and means that there often isn’t time to produce the work, so people are terrified of change."

Dare has introduced a system of "rapid creative development" that does away with briefs and sign-offs to allow iterative development. An initial "compass meeting" establishes a direction of travel at the beginning of the project, and people accept that it can change. Work is reviewed regularly so failings can be acknowledged quickly and adjustments made.

Daniel Fisher and Richard Brim, creative directors at Adam & Eve/DDB, substitute the word "bravery" for accepting failure to learn quickly. They believe it has to come down to one person who is prepared to be brave. "Marketing departments can’t be brave. It has to come from an individual client," Fisher says.

The duo was behind last year’s award-winning Harvey Nichols "sorry, I spent it on myself" campaign, where a tight budget focused the client on taking a more edgy approach. "Harvey Nichols didn’t have the spend of competitors and had to make maximum impact very quickly, so it was prepared to be brave," Brim points out.

Fisher and Brim took an edgy approach for Harvey Nichols, which needed impact on a small budget

Fisher says even large clients who would traditionally fear failure are starting to realise the dividends of being braver: "You are starting to see budgets being split into more projects. The core brand ad that is crucial to the business probably will still take two years to develop, and everybody will want their say, but there are projects where brands are prepared to be more edgy."

When advertisers are more open to alternatives on smaller projects, it helps them loosen up, and this attitude migrates across the main brands, Brim says. And as brands become content-focused, this approach is essential if they want visibility on channels such as YouTube.

With marketing needs moving away from traditional spot advertising, it is unsurprising that advertisers are turning to boutique outfits or taking creative in-house, Fisher suggests, but they do so at the risk of losing brand coherence. "It sounds like a nightmare to manage so many elements when you could have it all from one place," he says. "However, it is making big, slow-moving agencies more nimble."

Hotshops may be more willing to fail fast in order to unearth the freshest creative thinking, but it’s clear that the more traditional agencies will need to embrace a similar mentality if they are to attract and retain the brightest talent – and the boldest clients.

Wherever they sit in the creative universe, these trailblazers are busy proving the point that failure does not need to be feared.

Follow the debate at #trailblazing