Column: The Sell -- If at First You Don't Succeed

Often I think back to 10th grade chemistry. I practically failed every test, but still earned a B in that class because I scored an A on the final exam, which was worth 50 percent of my grade. Essentially, my wrong answers on every test during the year created a road map of my weaknesses. When studying I knew exactly what I did not know about chemistry. By focusing on my weak spots, I managed to ace the final and boost my grade to a respectable B. We should all be so lucky to fail like that.

With success comes jubilation and self-congratulation. Rarely do we closely examine the reasons why we succeeded. We assume we know exactly why things went well and move on to the next urgent project. With failure, however, we spend a great deal of time looking at why things went wrong. The introspection and post-analysis that failure brings is worthwhile. In a way, a very weird way, it is better to fail than to succeed. It's much harder to pinpoint why things went right than why something failed. Failure usually has a root cause; success, on the other hand, is a mixture of synergistic elements.

A few years ago, I recommended a promotional event that went horribly wrong. Beforehand, I did all of the necessary media and budget analyses. The creative concepts looked strong and they fit within our creative strategy. My client signed on and the event flopped. My one critical error? I did not meet the organizers in person. I relied on phone calls and e-mail instead of flying to L.A. for a face-to-face initial meeting. Had I done that, I would have run (not walked) away from these charlatans.

Luckily, my client was lenient and this was not an account-ending mistake. I admitted the error and worked hard to rectify it. The immediate lesson was clear — always meet your event partner! E-mail, phone calls and letters of recommendation mean nothing compared to the value of human interaction. The larger lesson also was clear — clients want honesty as much as they want results.

There is an art to optimizing an online media buy. Some ads might generate more leads but less actual sales. Sometimes an efficient cost per action can only be acquired by a higher cost per thousand impressions. By replacing underperforming sites or ads, companies improve their results and improve their desired metrics (CPA, CPC, etc.). Therefore, failure is an integral part of online success.

Direct response advertisers place ads according to where will they receive the most consumer action. Ads that don't produce are discarded from the media plan. Successful companies like Proactiv manufacturer Guthy-Renker plan on failing, because they know that they don't have all the answers. Proactiv makes sure to repeatedly test different time periods and analyze the resulting sales. They repeat the process until they have their perfect media mix. Knowing where not to place an ad is halfway to knowing where to place the ad.

Even Warren Buffet believes in the power of mistakes: "If you don't make mistakes, you can't make decisions," he says. The power to learn from our failures allows us to move forward. We cannot be afraid to take chances. If we fail, then at least we have learned something, and if we succeed we break new ground.

Online media has lowered the barrier of entry to ad testing. Since we can simultaneously test multiple creative executions, we can move faster from creative ideation to implementation. As users react to different ad copy, we can divert our financial resources into better performing assets.

With traditional broadcast (radio and TV) we can use specific phone numbers to determine each station's impact. With enough patience (and budget) we can optimize our media decisions based on actual response. Out-of-home media is more difficult to optimize. How can we prove that one bus shelter was more efficient than another? Sadly, for established brands, we cannot. Moreover, out-of-home production costs prohibit on-the-fly placements. For smaller clients, the financial risk of failure outweighs the possible rewards.

It's hard to embrace failure. Usually failure means a loss of money, which is scary to anyone with a budget, a goal and a boss. But the upside of failure is that our marketing plans can become that much smarter. Therefore, half of success is failing often.

Andrew Ettinger is director of interactive media at RJ Palmer (

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