The Law of Failure

Author: Nader Ashway
Published: October 05, 2011 at 4:37 pm
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Illustration: Bruce Crilly

It’s been noted in many places that Thomas Edison [caricatured above] may have failed as many as 1,000 times at inventing an electric-powered light bulb, and when asked about his string of failures, he turned the tables by saying (and I’m paraphrasing,) “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. I succeeded at inventing a light bulb, and it took 1,000 steps to arrive at it.”

A recent New York Times article asked the question "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" when discussing education and character among school-age children. Do a search on “failure,” and you’ll find inspiring stories of heroes of history who have failed mightily on the way to great successes: Churchill, Einstein, Darwin, Pasteur, Ford and on and on.

Okay, that’s a lot of fluffy and warm and puppies. But in business – and particularly in marketing – we’re trained otherwise. For most of us, “failure is not an option” for our next product rollout, or our next advertising plan, or our next event. However, if we embrace The Law of Failure, we might find that failing helps to reveal what success really looks like.

In almost every business, professionals fail their way into success, typically in a process of elimination continuum: try › fail › tweak › repeat until try ultimately leads to success. At which point, you test the snot out of that success to ensure repeatability and reliability. This is true in engineering; in medicine; in sports; in fashion; in entertainment; in technology; in a zillion other categories.

In marketing and advertising, (direct, media, creative,) we call it “testing.” But testing is simply an accepted euphemism for “financing failure to yield better strategies.” Why else would almost every big campaign be run through focus groups first?  Why test your spots on samples of your target demographic? It's not so much that you can see what WORKS, but rather that you can reveal what DOESN'T.

My theory on why it is so vehemently avoided in the marketing/advertising arena is simply because of the money flow. When doing medical testing, for instance, the medical company has an R&D budget to cobble away in a lab for sometimes years at a time. In engineering or technology, all the sunk costs are stacked upfront – sometimes financed by venture capitalists – and millions or tens or hundreds of millions of dollars might be spent to arrive at a new design/product/solution that then gets recouped upon selling/distributing/launching.

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Article Author: Nader Ashway

Nader Ashway is Founding Partner and Creative Director of moddern marketing, a new york city integrated marketing agency founded on the principles of marketing science. Nader is a board member and the former president of the Business Marketing Association of NYC. …

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