How We Regrouped After a Spectacular Failure Lost Us a Client

Rethinking systems after a project fell apart in creative

A willingness to take on failure isn't a new or extraordinary thought. It allegedly took Edison a thousand attempts to come up with a successful prototype for the light bulb. But failure is still excruciating, leading to days of navel gazing and philosophizing before eventually yielding a way forward. 

We recently completely reorganized our creative process, as a reaction to a spectacular process failure that led to the demise of a client relationship. 

The client had hired us to do a brand strategy and positioning exercise, followed by packaging design. The strategy piece went well. But the whole thing fell apart in creative. We had an unusually long run-up to the first creative presentation, which would normally be seen as a boon. But over the course of time, the project lost its way. What was clearly briefed as pack design somehow turned in the minds of some to a branding exercise. 

What followed was a total breakdown of communication—people simply stopped talking to each other about the things that mattered. The creatives churned away, without checking to make sure they were on the right path. Those members of the team who knew they weren't on the right path did not feel empowered to speak up. As new brand-identity options were posted for public view, many of us thought we'd missed a meeting in which client must have expressed interest in a new identity. No one asked: "What is this?"

This all led, inevitably, to a complete disaster of a client presentation, after which we had to scramble to come back with pack designs. The second creative presentation meeting went OK, but we never survived the first. Doubt had been sown. The client walked. 

So, we took action as a management team and met off-site to brainstorm new, more efficient, more informed ways of doing business. We concluded that we had not been setting up the teams for success. The way forward, we agreed, was for us to set a clear course for a project, codified in a road map that charted objectives, goals, creative territories, process and resources. Now, no project in the agency can be kicked off without this kind of preliminary rigor. 

Lesson learned. But not without some heartbreak and soul searching. Failing is not for wimps.

Top photo: Dave Nakayama on Flickr

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Rebecca Armstrong
Rebecca Armstrong is principal and managing director at North in Portland, Oregon.

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