Why Failure May Be Your Key to Marketing Success

Master motivator Zig Ziglar once said, ‘Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.’ I couldn’t agree more… and his words underscore the advice I find myself giving to marketers again and again these days:

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Our industry is rapidly evolving, but we can’t lead the way as change agents if we’re frozen in place, paralyzed by fear. Many marketers are hard-wired to be visionaries, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. We see the end game, and so we want to get there fast. We take on too much too soon, feel overwhelmed and then crumble when the grand design starts to erode. Or we start out small, only to pull the plug at the first sign of trouble.

There is a better way. Try this:

Evaluate, execute and evolve.

In other words, always have the end game in sight, but put a first goal out there, too. Take smaller steps, and learn as you go. Nothing proceeds according to plan 100 percent of the time, so expect to have a few failures along the way. Use those failures to learn. I’ve been on the front lines of marketing for more than 25 years, and I can tell you quite sincerely that for me, the best lessons have come from things that initially didn’t work out as expected.

In fact, here are six key marketing lessons I learned when the chips were down and I was grappling head-on with a ‘detour’ (as Zig would say):

1. Marketing teams need to be driven by strategy, not by boxes.
Early in my leadership career, I always compared the structure of my marketing organization with what was happening at other companies. Then, I would scratch my head when the results we had didn’t measure up. Don’t get me wrong – it’s essential to look externally and watch for ‘next practices – because best practices are too late.’ Keep in mind, it’s also essential to build organizational models from strategy – which shifts over time and must be tied to accountability.

2. Everyone is in marketing.
I’ve been one of those CMOs that followed the average shelf life path of 18-24 months. But, here’s some good news: that’s a changing trend – both for me and for the industry. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that ‘black boxing’ marketing doesn’t work. Hiding behind brand words, soft metrics and ambiguous measures kept me and my organization from realizing our full potential and success. Today, the key is integration both internally and externally. CMOs need to step up as change agents who can start tearing down silos. Give away your messages, your thought leadership, internally and you’ll have a market-facing organization that helps you accomplish your marketing goals without the headcount and expense.

3. Marketing drives business revenue.
I grew my marketing career from the MarCom side of the function. Many others grow from the Product side. I had to step out of my comfort zone and work HARD to overcome the ‘Oh, you are an arts and crafts function’ stereotype. ‘Marketing drives business revenue’ became my mantra, but only after I failed to get CEOs/CFOs on board with key initiatives using my natural DNA and training. Rather than melt under the pressure, I invested in learning and ran my own small consulting firm to learn P&L. Even now, I continue to hone my business acumen to drive better marketing and in-market results (ROI).

4. Keep it simple.
I’ve made the mistake of over-complicating programs, messages, etc. Often, I see other marketers falling into the same trap, turning the straightforward into something too complex. If you want effective and optimized results, remember that the KISS principle (‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’) applies every day, every hour.

5. Failure is an option.
Start out small. Use prototypes, testing in risk-controlled environments, etc. Depending on your revenue and contribution mix, you may ever try moving out of the US to other markets and then to regions back in the US. Your goal is to drive change. In order to accomplish that, you’re going to have to take some risks – just make sure you learn if things don’t turn out exactly according to your plan. Make adjustments. Then, roll out or kill. Two books on my reading list –Tribes, by Seth Godin, and Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath – have been particularly influential in helping me see setbacks as opportunities for improvement.

6. Don’t take monkeys that aren’t yours.
As I grew into my roles as marketing manager, I discovered that I often wanted to solve the problems of my team. It took me a while to recognize there is a fine line between knocking down roadblocks and disempowering. The Harvard Business Review article ‘Who’s Got the Monkey?‘ helped me better understand when to be a linebacker and when to be a coach. Now, a crystal bowl of plastic monkeys serves as a reminder of that valuable lesson every day.

This post was previously published on Forbes.com.

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Author:Lisa Arthur

Seasoned C-Level Marketer with Fortune 50, Start-up and mid-sized high-tech marketing expertise. Currently CMO of Aprimo. Corporate blogger for Forbes.

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