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Lau­rence J Peter pub­lished Why Things Go Wrong in 1984. It es­tab­lished the Peter Prin­ci­ple (man­agers rise to the level of their in­com­pe­tence). I was re­cently re­minded of what Pro­fes­sor Peter had to say about com­pe­tence: “The way to avoid mis­takes is to gain ex­pe­ri­ence. The way to gain ex­pe­ri­ence is to make mis­takes.” Thirty-two years on, this is still as good as it gets.

But the cur­rent en­thu­si­asm for fail­ure seems to sug­gest that it should be ac­tively sought; and I think that’s do­ing fail­ure a dis­ser­vice. Fail­ure can be con­fi­dently re­lied upon to turn up even when – per­haps par­tic­u­larly when – ev­ery ef­fort has been made to evade it. I don’t see what lessons can be learned from a fail­ure that’s been con­sciously en­cour­aged. Be­fore you learn any­thing use­ful from get­ting things wrong, you have to be­lieve that you’ve got a fair chance of get­ting them right; and that means think­ing things through, try­ing to imag­ine what the in­evitable un­in­tended con­se­quences might be and ac­tively invit­ing a con­tri­bu­tion from the devil’s ad­vo­cate. To fail be­cause you failed to ap­ply a les­son you’d al­ready learned is just an ex­pen­sive act of raw stu­pid­ity.

‘Fail fast, fail of­ten’ is the mantra of those who pride them­selves on their de­ci­sive­ness. I once heard a chief ex­ec­u­tive say: “I’d rather make a bad de­ci­sion im­me­di­ately than a good one three weeks later.” And those around him mur­mured ador­ingly. No-one said: “Why?”

Fail­ure’s ex­ces­sive pop­u­lar­ity stems from an over-cor­rec­tion. En­tire ca­reers have hit the buf­fers be­cause of one un­pre­dictable er­ror of judg­ment. That must be wrong. Fear of fail­ure can re­duce or­gan­i­sa­tions to a con­di­tion of sta­sis. Be­cause fail­ure is in­evitable, it must also be in­fin­itely for­giv­able – and put to pos­i­tive use. But it doesn’t need to be en­cour­aged, let alone sanc­ti­fied. It doesn’t need any help from us. Dear Jeremy, on a per­sonal level I haven’t struck it off with the agency team I’m work­ing with, even though they are de­liv­er­ing solid re­sults. When it comes to build­ing up trust in a client-agency re­la­tion­ship, should I bury these feel­ings and con­cen­trate on the work they’re de­liv­er­ing? Could there be more dis­heart­en­ing praise for an agency than to hear their work de­scribed as solid?

This is how I de­code your ques­tion. “I get no plea­sure from agency meet­ings; in fact, I’ve come to dread them. The peo­ple are po­lite, ef­fi­cient, re­spect­ful – and ut­terly, de­press­ingly pre­dictable. Their work is on brief, on time – and ut­terly, de­press­ingly pre­dictable. When I com­pleted the last an­nual agency assess­ment, I couldn’t give them less than 7.5 so they pre­sum­ably think I like them. I don’t.” As a pro­fes­sional and dis­pas­sion­ate mar­ket­ing per­son, com­mit­ted to serv­ing your com­pany and its share­hold­ers to the best of your abil­ity, you have no choice but to bury your per­sonal feel­ings and be grate­ful for the so­lid­ity of your agency’s out­put. As a sen­tient hu­man be­ing, you can’t go on like this. It’s not fair on you, the agency – or even your com­pany. Solid isn’t good enough.

The chances are that you don’t need to change your agency – just the team, or even just a part of it. You won’t like be­ing crit­i­cal of po­lite, ef­fi­cient and re­spect­ful peo­ple, but ask to see your agency’s head hon­cho. Don’t dress up your dis­sat­is­fac­tion as some­thing it isn’t. Be ab­so­lutely truth­ful.

Just be care­ful that you don’t start en­joy­ing your­self so much that you find your­self sign­ing off flaky work. A lot of your com­peti­tors would hap­pily set­tle for solid. There’s of­ten a prof­itable place for brands with rather bor­ing im­ages. The older peo­ple get, the more they ap­pre­ci­ate the bor­ingly pre­dictable. I speak from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence here. If this brand has had a rather bor­ing im­age for 50 years or more, treat it with great care and re­spect. I know its loy­al­ists will be dy­ing out but re­search sug­gests that other peo­ple are con­stantly re­plac­ing them.

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