Not an evil at all

"There’s only one thing you can count on...On any given moment in any given day, somebody somewhere is screwing up."

At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama asked his then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for advice on managing the sprawling, labyrinthine executive branch of the U.S. government.

Obama says that Gates gave “one of his wry, crinkly smiles.

‘There’s only one thing you can count on, Mr. President,’ he said. ‘On any given moment in any given day, somebody somewhere is screwing up.’”

Obama then surmises that his job going forward was to “minimize screw-ups.”

In our marketing efforts, minimizing mistakes—pursuing perfection or maximum efficiency—can often feel like our primary job, too. But while mistakes in government can be disastrous, in marketing, the pursuit of eliminating mistakes is the vastly bigger danger.

As former Pixar president Ed Catmull remarked, in creative work,

“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t an evil at all.”

And expressing our value proposition and reinforcing our position—in a way people will notice and understand—takes creativity. It isn’t easy, and it’s rare to nail it on the first try. We don’t know for sure how people will respond, and we must be able to test and adjust.

Because as Claude C. Hopkins, one of history’s most successful advertisers, explained, “We are dealing with human nature…No amount of experience can guide us correctly in even the majority of cases.”

This isn’t about random trial and error, it’s about having a strategy to reinforce our position—considering the most likely outcomes—and experimenting with creative, clear, and attention-grabbing ways to express our value to the public.

But if we, or the people on our team, can’t make mistakes—experiments with negative results—we’ll focus instead on avoiding all errors. We’ll get more and more cautious and vague in our advertising and content. We’ll follow the industry trends and fashions instead of standing out. And we won’t take chances.

Our marketing will be less and less clear about who our ideal customers are and that we understand their challenge. So we’ll end up spending more and more time and energy—in pitches, on sales calls, in website copy—trying to convince prospects to work with us.

Instead, we can strive to be unique.

We can stand out and show that we’re different. But standing out, getting attention, and demonstrating our value effectively takes a creative idea. And “no idea in the world has been proved in advance,” as Roger Martin says.

That means our goal must not be to eliminate all mistakes, but to minimize the cost of creative mistakes—and maximize their value.

How? Hopkins described his process for success: “I made so many mistakes in a small way, and learned something from each. I made no mistake twice.”

Before launching a new creative idea into the market, design an experiment that lets you test it out on a small scale first. Perhaps you could run a few targeted ads before promoting the campaign widely. Or you might be able to test out the new direction in one marketing channel before taking it everywhere.

“Watch every appealing lead,” and make small adjustments to home in on what your ideal customers respond to best. With this method, Hopkins says, “every once in a while I developed some great advertising principle.”

What doesn’t work provides clues to what will. Mistakes allow us to build ever-better models and principles of what does work, like what our ideal market position should be, and how to demonstrate it effectively to our prospective customers.

“Error is not a bug: it is a feature,” according to Martin. “The experience of error is consistent with a march toward ever-better answers—ever-better models.”

And these principles are worth more than a small mistake might cost.

Because the upside to making mistakes is unlimited so long as we carefully limit our downside.

When we operate this way, “ordinary failures mean little,” Hopkins promises. “The loss is a trifle, if anything, in ventures which are rightly conducted.”

Mistakes can be seen as failures to be avoided. Or they can be seen as vital guides to future success.

One way leads to overly cautious marketing that won’t appeal to anyone in particular. The other way leads to clear and creative marketing that will attract our best possible customers.

As Hopkins put it, “all the difference I see lies in attitude of mind.”