Why embracing failure can lead to greatness
Our joint CCO's Vicki Maguire and Caroline Pay take to the stage at Adweek to share why we should be brave enough to embrace our fuckups.
March 23, 2018
Vicki Maguire and Caroline Pay promised to tell some embarrassing stories of how their own fuck ups got them to where they are today, and they didn’t disappoint.
The message, particularly to the younger people in the audience, was that fuck ups can lead you to a better and more brilliant place.
Maguire began, “When you’ve just left come out of college and you’re trying to prove your worth, you want to deliver on the brief and make everyone around you happy… and that’s a shame. You have to let go of the fear of trying new things. New things will get this industry out of the shit that it’s in at the moment. Try, fail, get better. The more you do that then the better the industry is going to be.”
At the museum of failures in Sweden Google Glasses are a prize exhibit. Maguire said, “Google glasses were brilliant at making everybody look like a prize twat, but they learnt and they are coming back – thinner and less twatty and better – because they’ve learned from their mistakes.”
Then the stories got personal. Maguire has been sacked five times. She’s walked out twice, and has even been escorted out the building after she got red lipstick on a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress 30 minutes before the last fitting.
While working as a designer at Ted Baker, Maguire took delivery of 25,000 shirts that she had designed, but forgotten to draw the buttons.
Pay has her own stories of failure. She left great jobs at three great agencies because she wasn’t going in the direction she wanted to, and she is proud to admit that she has a failed marriage, which she frames as “the start of a new adventure.”
Her Tesco work was Turkey of the Week (and a top five Turkey of the Year) in Campaign, but she celebrates this unapologetically, not just because she learnt more lessons on that job than in her entire career, but because – “fuck you industry” – the ad worked for the brand.
Maguire told the audience, “It’s important to lose this fear of fucking up. You can see now there’s some weird shit happening, you can feel it. “Some big things are breaking, new medias are coming in, the power has gone to the consumer. We are in a really weird landscape, where relying on tried and tested methodologies may not get us out of the shit we are in.”
Being in charge of 400 people can make it difficult to try new things, because you don’t want to put them in jeopardy, but you shouldn’t let that put you off. Maguire said “Approach it in a different way and they will come with you. We are living in really interesting times and this is the time not to hunker down, but to try, fail, fuck up and move on. The more you fail, the more power failure loses, and the more power you get back.”
Pay agreed, “You build up resilience and start surprising yourself how you respond in situations. Losing a massive pitch you thought you’d won it’s a disaster, but at the same time 400 people are looking at you to get over it, so you get the fuck over it really, really quickly.
“I can do probably a big bounce back in one to two minutes now and it used to take me one to two months. Bouncing back is the key to being open to failure because you know it will be alright in the end.”
Pay and Maguire offered some important lessons in failure.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Pay told the story of her first nine months of disasters when I started at Mother. “The first campaign I did with Kim was for a shampoo brand called Organics. We had no fucking idea what we were doing from start to finish, so we ended up on the shoot crying and we had to call Robert Saville to come down and take over because we couldn’t decide what colour blouse the lead girl should wear.”
Back at the agency it was Easter and there was a bunny giving out personalized Easter eggs to everyone, while Caroline and Kim were sitting at a table crying that they didn’t deserve Easter eggs because they’d made a really bad ad.
Robert Saville and Mark Waites walked up, slid two videos on the table, and said, “This is all the shit work we made before we started Mother.”
Pay said, “It was just a brilliant moment, and probably why I lasted there so long, because we were being led by people who were proud that they had failed miserably many, many times.”
Don’t have a plan B.
Maguire told the audience, “If you’ve got nothing to fall back on you are more likely to go in all guns blazing. When you have nothing to lose you can lose nothing. You are either going to be gloriously successful or you are going to have an epic fail. Either way you are going to be in a different place than where you started.”
She warned people not to rely on their parents, not to rely on the book under the bed or the half-written film, and not to rely on marrying someone rich. “It ain’t going to happen,” Maguire warned, “Go plan A all the way.”
On your journey, people will fail you.
“I’ve learnt more from the arseholes that I’ve worked with than from the people I hold in high esteem,” Maguire said, “purely because I look at them and go, ‘thank you I will never treat anybody like that.’
In a passionate rant, Maguire added, “I will never have junior teams queueing up outside my posh office while I’m in the Ivy talking about the good old days. I will never take somebody’s work and put my name on it because I’m in one last dying gasp for a pencil. None of that shit.”
Those things have happened to her, but she’s not bitter. “I say thank you and move on,” Maguire said. “I thank my community college back in the 70s for having absolutely no ambition for me. And I seriously mean that. Because when you start from a place where nobody expects anything from you, you don’t give a shit.”
Designer Paul Smith have her invaluable advice when he said, “Vicki you can’t design, you can’t draw, stop it and go and write your ideas down instead.”
Pay said, “We all understand what one upmanship is – a lot of boasting and egos – but we failures find one downmanship so much more helpful. It feels like a flip to what our industry is being brought up on.”
Before they worked together at Grey London, Pay and Maguire were friends and used to meet for breakfast once a month. They poured out their hearts to each other about work and life, and indulged in one downmanship about their fuck ups.
Maguire said, “When you can tell someone that your day couldn’t get any worse, it takes you to a much more interesting place and the fear of failure goes away.”
Fuck off funds
This is different to a plan B, Maguire explained. She said, “This is three months rent and bills put away because if you end up in a place where people are failing you, you can walk.”
She was working in an agency that was known a lot of jingles, and when it was suggested that one of her favourite songs, Dolly Parton’s Jolene, was turned into “saveeng” for a financial services ad, it was the final nail in the coffin.
“I knew that my fuck off fund I would be alright,” Maguire said. “It would not be as bad as the place I was in there.”
Your biggest fuck up
You get more interesting conversation when you ask people not only how they fuck up, but more importantly how they bounce back, Pay said. She added, “We genuinely think there is nothing more interesting or valuable than working with someone who has something to prove.”
Fuck impostor syndrome
It might not be very British, or very female, but Pay has had enough of people worrying about getting found out and claiming that they don’t really know what they’re doing.
She said, “Fuck off. You are paid well for having an opinion, for your skills and your experience, and you’ve earned a seat at the table. Impostor syndrome is fear of failure in another form. It’s bullshit and it’s unhelpful to be coy especially, as a woman. Take a seat at the table. Let someone else pour the coffee. And never take notes.”
Fail out loud
However high up you get, nobody has all the answers. Maguire said, “There are people in that room who are maybe younger than you, they may more experienced than you. If they have an answer or an opinion, let them have it. Change your mind. Be prepared to be convinced, and be open when you fail. The most powerful bit of leadership is knowing that the people around you have got an opinion, pulling those out and going forward as a team.”
Failing together is one of the most special things about our job and our industry, Pay told the audience. “I’ve been on really difficult bits of business and had really bad bits of news but I wasn’t doing it on my own. I’ve always been surrounded by brilliant people; that’s what makes it worthwhile.”