Failure has been a mantra where I work, at Wieden+Kennedy, for much longer than I’ve worked here. Dan Wieden has preached failure from the start. So much so that a few years back W+K 12 made a massive pushpin wall that reads “Fail Harder.”
The current class, whom I teach, recently added an extra “er” as part of an abecedarium project they created to introduce themselves to the agency. We no longer just fail harder, now we fail harderer.
Recently I’ve been hearing about a lot of other businesses and corporate cultures that are preaching the virtues of failure. I’ve heard it discussed on NPR’s Marketplace, and have read business leaders talk about it in the New York Times.
Failure is in. Or maybe it always has been and I’ve only recently started paying attention.
Either way, embracing failure makes sense. You learn more from failure than from success. Some success can be replicated, but usually once an idea has been done right, that particular road to success is closed. Although the producers of Friday the 13th may beg to differ.
Failure, on the other hand, shows us where things went wrong and why something didn’t work. We tend not to fail the same way twice.
And yet I’ve had a hard time embracing failure in my own work.
Having advertising campaigns killed is one thing. I joke that advertising is a lot like baseball. If your average getting ideas sold and produced is over .300 you’re doing pretty well. If it dips down to .200 start worrying about a trip to the minors. Even if you’re hitting a Hall of Fame worthy .400, that still means more ideas die than ever see the light of day.
And that’s okay. Advertising campaigns are collaborations with a multitude of factors going into whether they get made or not.
But a bad personal or art project is a different matter altogether. There is no one else to blame. Any project I take on is only as good or as bad as I make it. Even if I have collaborators, I have chosen them and we are starting with my vision.
I have made some nice films, had created a few very good performances, and done some writing I’m quite proud of.
But a few years ago I made a film that is simply mediocre. I’ve only just now gotten around to sharing it. Here’s part one.
As you might have noted if you just watched it, the idea was good. A forty year-old guy sets up a lemonade stand on the grass between the sidewalk and street outside my house. I attempt to get him to leave. Hilarity, I reasoned, would ensue.
The cast and crew I enlisted were great. I cast my friend Bill Bailey as the lemonade salesman and a very good cameraman donated his time to film it.
I got a great editor too, a NYU student interning at Wieden+Kennedy over the summer, who did the best with what he had.
The problem was the script. Or the complete lack of one. I had a good enough idea that I figured we’d just wing it. You’d think I’d know better. I don’t tend to wing things. And I’ve written half a dozen feature screenplays, each which took the better part of a year to write.
But years earlier Bill and I had made a series of short films with another friend, Steve MacDougall, in which we winged it. We had a loose idea, we went out and filmed it, and amazing things happened. I figured we might catch lighting in a bottle again. We didn’t.
See how that works? What did I learn from my early, easy success? Not much. If anything it taught me I could do something I couldn’t, at least not again. It made me cocky.
What did I learn from the more recent failure? Something I already know but will never make the mistake of actually doing again. Movies are only as good as their story. The old adage goes that a good story can survive bad acting but good acting can’t save a bad story. And without a script there’s not much of a story to save.
Are there some chuckles? I think so. Am I proud of enough to share them? You already know that I am. In fact, here’s part 2.
But what could have been great or really good, was simply good, or as I said before mediocre.
Nonetheless, I’m finally sharing them.
Partly it’s a way of owning and acknowledging my failure. Partly I’m curious if I’m not being just a tad hard on myself and these get some views and passed around a bit. I also think it’s only fair to share the fruits of others’ labor when you do a project and ask people to donate their time and talents.
But mostly, I just want to own up to failing, share what I’ve learned, and move onto new and hopefully better things.
In the meantime, here’s the 3rd and final part.