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Marketers need to make better mistakes: 7 assumptions holding us back

By Will Green | Associate Creative Director

Ledger Bennett

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February 13, 2024 | 7 min read

A fear of making mistakes can often hamper results, says Will Green at Ledger Bennett. Tear up the rulebook, throw caution to the wind – and thank him later.

The word 'mistake' is printed in white on a red strip

It's time to reassess what we mean by errors, says Will Green

As the economist George Stigler says, “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

Every decision, in other words, has a downside. But the nature of that downside is up to us. Would you rather miss a flight every couple of years, or spend a lifetime getting to Heathrow three hours early? That’s your trade-off to make. 'Choose your mistakes’ can be a useful heuristic for both making a decision, and then understanding its outcome.

But here's the thing about marketers. We’re far too comfortable making the wrong kinds of mistake: the mistakes that come from risk-aversion and people-pleasing. Not the mistakes of ambition and self-assurance.

And data won't help you. Because the outcome of no decision (high-level and strategic, or low-level and tactical) can be perfectly quantified. There's always a trade-off. By doing one thing, you axiomatically are not doing something else. Numbers can guide you one way or another, but down each path lie mistakes.

So what kind of mistakes are marketers comfortable making? Here are some.

1. ‘Wed rather impress our peers than do what what works’

I can walk into any pub in the UK, sing “Autoglass repair…” and I guarantee someone will sing back “…Autoglass replace.”

The point is, jingles can work. Silly songs can work. Jokes can work. Sticking to the same core proposition for 10+ years usually works far better than a new brand campaign every 18 months. But those things tend not to make an industry splash or get your shelf creaking with Cannes Lions.

2. ‘Wed rather rely on controllable numbers than deliverable results’

100 market-qualified leads (MQLs) that lead to 80 closed deals are better than 500 MQLs that convert at 10%. But if those deals won’t come in until next year, and you have to present to the board next week, which numbers do you want to go armed with into the meeting?

3. ‘Wed rather win new customers than nurture old ones’

As with all things in ad land, new is exciting and old is ‘meh’. Which is why marketing initiatives, and budgets, continue to tilt towards acquisition, rather than retention and upsell – even though this is where a lot of revenue is.

4. ‘Wed rather please stakeholders than customers’

It might be that the chief technology officer won’t sign off your ad until you’ve listed ten more product features. It might be that the head of sales says to add a ‘buy now’ button to everything. Maybe the chief exec just doesn’t like that shade of purple. But when it comes to marketing, remember that smiles and nods from internal teams can come at the expense of engaging people out there.

5. ‘We prefer logical and homogenous over irrational and exceptional’

As advertising executive Rory Sutherland puts it: “It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to exactly the same place as your competitors.”

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6. ‘Marketing is geared to making ‘acceptable’ mistakes’

The list above might seem like a sleight of hand: it’s not really two kinds of mistake, it’s just a rundown of the ‘wrong’ way versus the ‘right’ way. But that’s not how it is. Choosing all of the 'right' things above will lead to mistakes. Sometimes massive ones.

If your extremely effective work is constantly being sneered at on social media, it might make hiring new talent difficult. If you focus on a much smaller pool of hot leads, it’s likely you’ll miss out on some promising warm ones. If you shoot for the moon with a creative idea that’s unlike anything else in your industry, it might be an embarrassing flop that gets you fired.

7. ‘Follow a good plan and you'll make the right errors’

These are real risks. And avoiding the negative potential of those risks is precisely why marketing is biased towards certain kinds of mistakes and not others. It’s why, as marketers, we are far more prone to the errors that follow from herd-mentality and vanity metrics, than the mistakes of maverick-thinking or holistic measurement.

But for marketing to be more effective – not just as a discipline, but as a business function – these are the kinds of mistakes we need to risk making. Because the upside of that risk is the eye-popping, competitor-bashing, customer-focused, revenue-driving marketing that we actually want to do.

Even better, when you choose your mistakes wisely, it means you don’t have to self-flagellate when things do go wrong. Because as long as you’re making the right kinds of mistakes, your plan is working.

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Your business goals don’t stop at MQL…Neither do we. Ledger Bennett go beyond the call of the traditional B2B Marketing Agency to serve as the end-to-end partner for modern Revenue Teams, with solutions to link composite Sales, Marketing and Success functions, and optimize everything from top-of-funnel activity to LTV. We devise, build and execute bespoke, connected processes to weave together your customers’ holistic Revenue Journey… From first touch to forever.

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