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 doing as well
—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 millennials, though. Instead, it’s about an episode of the gaming culture show “Extra Credits
,” titled “Fail Faster,” that went up on YouTube 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:
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 eagerly await the moment she can show her PowerPoint slide with the case study about increasing Client X’s Facebook likes by 468 percent. 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 they say 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 given that 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 who 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 it handles success, helping bad ideas fail early before they become catastrophes. If your PR team hasn’t detected and corrected an error in your communications strategy lately, then they’re not helping you innovate; they’re just executing. If they’re only executing, it would probably be better (and cheaper) for you to 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 off 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
, fostering a relationship where failure is expected and tolerated is essential for 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.
[RELATED: Prove the ROI of your digital efforts after hearing these top-rated case studies in March.]
Great ideas—especially in creative fields such as 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. A version of this story originally appeared on the firm's blog.