Fail harder!

“The heart of the soul of this agency is ‘fail harder’. You have to be able to fail, if you’re going to do anything worthwhile.” – Dan Wieden, Wieden-Kennedy

The author of “Just do it!“, Dan Wieden, of Wieden-Kennedy, died last week, at the age of 77. He had made creative work look so simple, like it wasn’t work at all. And yet, he simply figured out what it really takes to produce stunning creative work. And he stuck to it.

Together with the late David Kennedy, he built one of the best independent ad agencies, from a makeshift basement office, with no phone of its own, to a global network with 1500 people, 8 offices on 4 continents and over $3 billion in billings.

If that doesn’t awe you, how about Michael Jordan ads, Colin Kaepernick spots and all of the Nike ads we enjoyed over the years?

How Weiden-Kenedy found success through failing

These are their business secrets, in Dan’s own words:

“The heart of the soul of this agency is ‘fail harder’. You have to be able to fail, if you’re going to do anything worthwhile.”

I also like this sentence, from the same speech he gave in 2016:

“Chaos is the only thing, the only thing that honestly wants you to grow, the only friend who really helps you be creative, that demands that you be creative, so you can make something that matters.”

This sentence truly reads as if he knew me (or most creative individuals out there):

“But perhaps the most important thing about chaos is that it will challenge authority. And it cares more about truth than power.”

So far, so good. You agree with him, don’t you? Most creative people I know do prefer dynamic contexts, frequent changes and novel challenges, to stale status quo.

Rather than rot in suffocating, monotonous order, we all gladly handle or at least can endure quite a lot of chaos. We even sometimes crave it.

Any good story has a twist

There’s even more wisdom in Dan Wieden’s words. If you don’t pay close attention, you might miss it:

“Now, clearly, there are some disciplines in this agency that really don’t need chaos in their operating policy. Finance comes to mind. We’re pretty stuck in the mud when it comes to finance. Don’t fuck with the money.”

Now, in my experience (limited to only 3 continents, mind you) that’s exactly what is wrong with less-than-great agencies. To use Dan Wieden’s terminology, they fuck with the money. AND they banish all chaos from their creative departments.

The most clockwork-like operation is always found in their Copy, Art & UX Design rooms. Creatives under their watch have to arrive on time, work every minute, account for all seconds in their time sheets, rush all jobs so that more orders can be squished into the task master of de jour.

What happens to creativity

The most of their creativity always goes to the flow of money. Underpay so-and-so; cut here to pour more in there; cut back on everything, but splurge on something silly, anti-date or fake a couple of orders or screw over an arm’s-length freelancer, who will know?

All their creativity is spent chasing the money at hand. Yet, penny wise, pound stupid, in the long run they chase it away. Here’s Dan again:

“But fuck the money. We’ve got to create a culture that’s so damn weird. So wild, so sticky, that it would hurt your very soul to leave the place. And that culture, if it seems as our highest priority, and matured and nurtured properly, it just might create the kind of environment that will not only retain our best people, but inspire them to do the best work of their lives.”

Speaking of speaking truth to power

It’s simple. It’s a choice. You could just swap where you are being strict and where you are being creative. You too, like Dan Wieden, could go for culture, inspiration and unforgettable work, followed by more money than you could ever imagine. You know you could.

Just do it.