How Well Does Your Agency Fail?

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons: Nima Badiey
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons: Nima Badiey

It’s no secret to the people I work with that I enjoy video games. Even though other forms of media – especially the ones that aren’t doingaswell – like to portray video games (or “interactive digital experiences,” if you’re feeling artsy) as a waste of time, savvy marketers will realize that they’re the largest form of entertainment by revenue for consumers under 35. Personally, they’re the primary form of media I consume – a bit before books and music and miles ahead of television and movies. This isn’t a post about the media consumption preferences of Millenials, though. Instead, it’s about an episode of the gaming culture show Extra Credits, titled “Fail Faster,” that aired last week. I watch this show every week, but this particular episode got me thinking about the relationship between agencies and clients. Check it out below:

http://youtu.be/rDjrOaoHz9s

So, what can this lesson in game design teach us about what to look for in a PR firm? First of all, how a firm handles failure is just as important as how it handles success. Perhaps because the benefits PR agencies provide can be difficult to measure – in contrast to, say, sales or stock numbers – PR professionals LOVE to show metrics. This is especially true for things like social media – in a pitch, a PR executive will anxiously await the moment they can show their PowerPoint slide with the case study about increasing Client X’s Facebook likes by 468%. The statistic sounds great, but it’s not actually proof of a successful formula.

Look beyond the metrics and ask your potential agency what went wrong along their case study’s path to success. They should be able to describe some errors: maybe they reached out to the wrong influencers, or didn’t understand where a certain customer segment spends their time online. They should also have clear examples of how they nipped these problems in the bud and made corrections that improved performance. If everything went off without a hitch, they either got really lucky or they aren’t telling the truth.

As the video says, “the later you fail, the more expensive your failures will be to correct” – and since the agency will be working off your budget, it’s good to get one that recognizes and deals with mistakes as quickly as possible.

Next, you should always hire a firm that’s smarter and more effective than you. Whether you’re an entrepreneur looking to make the best use of your first round of funding or a marketing manager that needs an ace external PR team, they should consistently have better ideas than you do and help your bad ideas fail quickly and gracefully. If your agency is always telling you how great your ideas are and following your lead, they’re one of three things: dishonest, incompetent or obsolete. A great firm will handle failure as well as they handle success, helping bad ideas fail early before they become catastrophes. If your PR team hasn’t noticed and corrected an error in your communications strategy lately, then they’re not helping you innovate: they’re just executing. And if they’re only executing, it would probably be better on your budget to just hire an internal direct report.

The flip side of this is true as well.  Sometimes, a firm will present an idea for a campaign that just does NOT work for the client’s customers. If you’re choosing a PR firm, ask your candidates about a time they had an idea that was way of the mark. How did they deal with the client’s feedback and course correct? If they don’t have a good example, it’s not because they’ve never had a bad idea; more likely, it’s because they’re not very good at failing. By extension, they’re probably not very good at success.

Last but not least, it’s important to make sure that fast failures are an expected and positive part of doing business. As Rob Shelton, the global innovation chief at PricewaterhouseCoopers, argues in this Business Insider article (I haven’t reprinted the title, as its complete clickbait), fostering a relationship where failure is expected and tolerated is critical to success. If people are afraid to acknowledge and learn from their errors – or, for that matter, the errors of others – the problem will only get worse (and more expensive) over time.

Great ideas – especially in creative fields like PR (or game design) – don’t spring forth fully formed.  Instead, they’re the result of a team of intelligent individuals constantly making small failures, critiquing them, and improving. A great agency won’t just have good ideas – they’ll also work hard to reduce the time to failure of bad ones. Next time you’re thinking about the agencies you work with (or plan to work with), don’t just think about how they succeed; it’s equally important to consider how they’ll help you fail as effectively as possible.

Zach Pearson is an account executive at Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_p_pearson