Fail Forward - A New Approach To Creative Flexibility

Robert Kennedy once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” There is a certain romantic connotation shrouded around the notion of failure, especially in today’s context of corporate innovation and the desire to stay relevant in a world that is constantly shifting.

The concept of “fail forward” or “fail fast” has recently been the topic of much discussion. “Fail forward” and “fail fast” represent a philosophy that gives a company the permission to make a small investment in something that can potentially grow to be much bigger. Both have become common watchwords in the business world, which raises a very apt question. How can failure be justified within a culture in which the word “fail” could have major implications for stock prices or the public perception of a corporation?

There is no doubt that the ethos of the startup community has created a trend in which the word “fail” is baked into the idealistic struggle of growth. It is the allure of rapid expansion, specifically in the realm of innovation, which has nudged the word “fail” into the corporate lexicon.  In the start-up world, as romantic as it seems, the situation is truly do or die. When you fail, you fail; or if you are lucky, you pivot.



But in the boardrooms and studios of the creative services and customer experience industry, otherwise known as advertising, failure is an old friend. The concept of fail has been baked into ad agency culture since the beginning of time, and is even expected to a certain degree.

Traditionally, “fail” in the context of the ad industry refers to not hitting certain revenue goals or awareness lifts based on a creative or tactical campaign launched at a targeted demographic of people for a finite amount of time.  But it is also the exercise of trying something new and turning the experience into a success, even if the original attempt was a so-called failure.  

Society at large is more forgiving and even admiring of companies that try to innovate and fail rather than those that play it safe. There is, therefore, more wiggle room for companies to make mistakes. In addition, the proliferation of technology and digital/social channels now allows companies to test the waters before diving in. Innovation is addictive. In business, refusal to innovate is detrimental.  Innovation and utility are now forms of advertising – innovation is the womb in which utility is created. Innovation requires failure – the ability to quickly try something to see if it works and then to improve upon the results.

The propagation of new technology – code bases, APIs, rapid design and prototyping tools, device kits, 3D printing, hacking and wearable computing – dares us to innovate and to innovate fast to keep up.  Culture tends to play a role in how creative concepts and innovation are received, and when culture shifts so dramatically, as it does today, one can only hope an idea still holds up by the time it is ready to be received by the public.  Therefore, what once took a year or two to prototype, fabricate, build, design and test is now done within days, sometimes less.

This is quite antithetical to the age-old agency process of perfection, polish and shine. Everything had to be meticulous. Today, however, completely baking products no longer works. Building in a fail phase gives us the flexibility to create, test, learn and improve upon based on feedback. That valuable feedback or insight is often found in the “fail” parts of the program.

We live in a world where there is much more confidence around putting out work that is still very much in progress. We have all witnessed Google’s 10-year beta phase and Facebook’s missteps; Twitter has a famous whale that celebrates its network failures. There is a spirit of collaboration between innovators and end users, an understanding that we will collectively make a product better.

Fail forward is the attempt to innovate and learn regardless of the success of a product. It is the outcome that provides much deeper insight and learning for the next initiative. Knowing what people don’t want clears the way to give them what they do want. Failure will continue to be the stone on which we sharpen our teeth for the next assignment.


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