I recently attended the Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain (which runs until 10 April). It boasts portraits of British aristocrats in unfamiliar local garb; maps and mementos; etchings of exotic wildlife; and, inevitably, partisan paintings of triumphs and treaties.
I was struck by the fact that there were also a good many images recording defeat: heroic deaths, military martyrdoms, hasty retreats. You can see the demise of General Gordon at Khartoum; the last stand of Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani; and, in a rather portentous painting, an only known survivor making his way into Jellalabad, Afghanistan. Creating a positive narrative around disaster seems to have been a Victorian speciality. I imagine the intention of these tragic images was to convey a sense of nobility; a reinforcement of values; a commitment to persevere.
The exhibition prompted me to consider how we engage with failure in commerce. How good are we at dealing with defeat?
‘Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.’
Vince Lombardi, Coach, Green Bay Packers
Whether we like it or not, defeat is an everyday reality for even the most successful modern business. Brand owners have to recognise that their customers are endlessly fickle; their competition will occasionally outflank them; often their new product launches will founder. Agencies have to concede that they will generally lose more pitches than they win; most of their output will go unrewarded; and, like political careers, all accounts end in failure.
Of course, we are taught that mistakes are essential to entrepreneurship. Loss is a source of lessons and learning. We want to ‘treat every failure as an opportunity.’ We endeavour to ‘fail forwards.’ We love ‘burning platforms.’ We ‘mustn’t waste a good crisis.’
This doesn’t mean we book a ticker-tape parade every time someone cocks up. In truth, despite the management wisdom, we tend to be superstitious about loss. It punctures momentum. It lingers like a bad odour. You don’t want to get too close.
From my time in the Agency world, I recall that one’s initial response to defeat was often to cry foul, to blame failure on the foolishness of the Clients, the perversity of the process. Personally I would immediately seek comedy in defeat. I found it had a short-term restorative effect.
The first question after an intensive six-week pitch for a luxury brand came from the laconic representative of China, the most important growth market: ‘Where is the luxury in this?’ We knew immediately the game was up…
In time we commission reviews, post mortems and ‘wash-ups.’ We ask for Client feedback. We pose the difficult questions. We scrutinise procedures and personnel.
However, excessive self-reflection can be counterproductive. We find ourselves seeking scapegoats, ‘reaching for the blame gun.’ So the audits and introspection start to damage morale. I well recall being reprimanded by a younger colleague who felt that the Agency leadership’s painful honesty was undermining collective confidence. And we thought we were being fashionably transparent.
My former boss, Sir John Hegarty, didn’t subscribe at all to the conventional view of defeat.
‘Many people talk about failures as opportunities to learn. Saying this seems to make people feel wise and worldly. Well I say bollocks to failure. Don’t dwell on it. Move on. Forget it.’
Sir John Hegarty, BBH, Hegarty on Creativity
John’s contention resonates well with creative people. They have to insulate themselves against damaging negativity; they must look forward to opportunity, not back at disappointment. Maybe we could all benefit from a little indifference to defeat.
In my opinion we are generally too emotional in the immediate aftermath of failure and too rational when the dust has settled.
I wonder, should we adopt some of the Victorians’ myth making? Perhaps, rather than embarking on earnest self-examination, we ought to seek the emotion in error, find heroism in loss, defiance in disaster. We should use missed opportunities as a means of reinforcing belief, commitment and values. Setbacks don’t just illuminate the way forward; they galvanize the collective spirit.
And I’d still maintain that, just occasionally, it helps to laugh in the face of failure.
‘If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.’
Previously published in the Guardian Media & Tech Network