It's an established truism among creative people that you have to fail—and learn from those failures—in order to succeed. But is this really true? And what do you learn, exactly, from a failure—besides not to try that particular idea again?
JWT explored the topic at Advertising Week on Monday, as panelists on stage and other guests in taped audio interviews revealed the "best worst idea" they've had in their careers, and what they learned if it all went down spectacularly in flames.
They learned perspective. They learned humility. They learned not to take their whole agency on a cruise. They learned that fairy-tale beginnings can have fairy-tale endings, but only with some unpleasant realities along the way. And in the case of panelist George Lois—well, it appears he learned nothing at all from his mistakes, of which perhaps there were none in the first place.
Lois spoke first, introduced by JWT moderator Matt MacDonald, and was the least representative member of the group. He showed several of his revolutionary TV spots from the early '60s, for brands like Puss 'n' Boots cat food and Olivetti. Then, admitting to one misstep, he mentioned Mantle Men & Namath Girls, the employment agency he opened in 1968—and which closed a year later as the economy floundered.
But Lois, 82, in his typically blunt manner, refused to admit he'd learned much from the experience. "A creative can never learn anything from his mistakes," he said. "The first time you learn from a mistake, you turn into a piece of shit. … The business world says you have to do that—you make a mistake one day, you learn from it the next day. Not a creative. You can be cautious. Or you can be creative. But there's no such thing as a cautious creative. Don't give your failures a second thought."
By and large, the other panelists respectfully disagreed with that. Darren Moran, chief creative officer at Havas Worldwide in New York, recalled an AIDS prevention spot he made for MTV years ago, in which Gilbert Gottfried did a version of "The Aristocrats" joke made famous in the documentary of the same name. The ad bombed.
"It ran once. Kind of like Apple's '1984,' " he joked. "It got letters. Angry letters. From teenagers. For teens to write angry letters to MTV, you really have to have done something wrong. And what I had done wrong was, I got so caught up in my desire to shock people into action that I was blind to whether it was even relatable. They didn't get it. Not a lot of teens watching documentaries about a 100-year-old joke. … It was a good idea, I think, but I had forgotten the audience."
The lesson, he said, was to focus on making the next spot relatable—which he did with the subsequent "Whatever Your Into" spot.
Vivian Rosenthal, the founder of Snaps, spoke next, and told an emotional story about her best worst idea—starting her previous business with a man she had fallen in love with. Over time, the relationship soured, and she had to leave the company in which she had invested so much of herself. The experience was excruciating, but Rosenthal—who is now writing a book called Becoming a Confident Woman—said it was transformative as well.
"It was absolutely, incredibly empowering to realize that out of a bad decision came something quite good," she said. "It was a sense of not having to rely on someone. That was the ounce of confidence that I felt all of sudden. And I said, OK, I'm going to do this again, but in a slightly different way. I'm going to start a company by myself, with no partners, certainly not with a boyfriend. And that's what I did. And it was exciting to see how such a bad idea became, in the end, a good idea for growing as an individual."
Finally, MacDonald, JWT's chief creative officer in New York, offered his own story of failure, recalling a two-hour live TV broadcast the agency once did for Macy's. The production was beset by problems, but in reviewing the tape recently, MacDonald realized it hadn't been as bad as he remembered. He had only remembered the bad stuff—which taught him a lesson in perspective.
"I had seen only the flaws of other people screwing up my idea," he said. "And that was really illuminating, and harder to deal with than the fact that this thing got screwed up."
Throughout the panel, MacDonald also played some very funny animations featuring audio recordings from special guests—Perry Fair, Wayne Best, Jeff Goodby, Pat Chiono and Kathy Hepinstall—recounting their own failures. Check out those videos below.