When we leave our jobs we talk about all the brilliant things we’ve done. But in an industry obsessed with success, Mel Arrow asks; why not list out the biggest failures we’ve learnt from instead.

Related image
Still from Absolut’s ‘Nothing to Hide’ campaign, planned by Mel.

I moved from Yorkshire to London when I was 23 to take a Grad position at BBH. My dad said I was going to join the ‘media luvvies’ in Soho. I liked how glamorous that sounded, but I didn’t really know what he meant. I hadn’t studied advertising and I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry. In fact, I didn’t actually know the advertising industry existed. I assumed brands made ads themselves, I think, or perhaps I didn’t even think about it long enough to get there. 

Needless to say, when I started working at BBH, I was useless. Like, spelling your name wrong on 300 business cards in your first week useless. It was mistake central up in here. Mostly because I was naïve. I didn’t know how it all worked. The best example of this (which now makes my heart bleed with empathy for 23 year old me…) is that for the first few months, I took creative work (pseudo scripts and oh my god actual drawings) to every creative review I was invited to and presented them without even a hint of irony. It took ages for people to tell me that this wasn’t part of a Strategist’s job…

9 years later, I am leaving BBH and I am much more educated than when I started. In fact, I really know my shit. I have lots of incredibly talented people and brilliant opportunities to thank for that, but I am also in this position, in no small part, because of the mistakes I’ve made. Small ones, big ones, ones that have earned me long walks around Golden Square with our CEO (holler if you’ve been there). 

We’re an industry obsessed with winning: winning pitches, scoring new talent, winning awards, topping league tables, listing our successes, leaving on a high. Winning is the key to success and trust me, I want to win (I want to win bad). But imagine if we had a dialogue about failure that was as loud as our dialogue about success. Surely we’d all feel freer and more human, we’d learn more, and perhaps we’d even make ourselves better at winning as a result. Failure is in the zeitgeist. Podcasts and books are dissecting the power of it. Maybe Silicon Valleys’ beta and ‘fail fast’ mentality started it. I think our industry needs to embrace it more.

I’ll start. With my #AlternativeLeavingEmail.

Here’s the 6 (yes 6…brilliantly imperfect) mistakes I’ve learnt most from in my career to date:

  1. I UNDERSOLD MYSELF: How many of you flinched at the phrase I used earlier: “I really know my shit”? Well, I do. I seriously do. So there. Scientifically, most men appear to have this covered, so I’m especially talking to the women when I say: own your talent, believe that you are good at your job and say it out loud. Repeat after me: I. Know. My. Shit. 
  2. I TOOK NOTEBOOKS TO MEETINGS: You will lose it. You will not read those notes again. Don’t bother. Listen properly instead, make eye contact, actually process and understand what is happening. If you absolutely have to take a notebook, make it a really small one. Everyone knows that the more important the person, the smaller their notebook. Fact. So if you have to, take a teeny tiny notebook and use it only as a prop for displaying your power. Thank me later when you get promoted.
  3. I USED TO TALK WAY TOO FAST. We are far more demanding of fast responses from ourselves than from others. In fact, people give themselves only 30% as much time to respond as they are willing to give others. 30%! Next time you are in a meeting, a pitch, a presentation, an interview, whatever it is – slow down. Do it deliberately. Take big pauses. Drink the water. You’ll be amazed at how in control it makes you feel.
  4. I VISIBLY REACTED WHEN THINGS WENT WRONG. The tech will always explode. The client will always ask a question you don’t know the answer to. When this happens, you need to get all James Bond on the situation. I’m talking non-reactivity. Ever see Bond squeal when someone jumps out from behind a door? No, you don’t. Non-reactivity is the key to confidence. When things happen that are outside the plan, don’t react, don’t show your emotions. Stay still, take a moment and engage your brain. Strictly no flapping. 
  5. I HID BEHIND PROCESS: It’s easy to not call the client because that’s the account person’s job. To not put forward an idea because that’s the creative’s job. I’m not suggesting you become a one person agency, doing everything, but the best people I have come across in advertising know when to step out of their specialism, out of the usual way of doing things and just get things done. Pragmatism over process any day.
  6. I TALKED LIKE A ROBOT. Jargon. I’m talking EOP, WIP, IP. Maybe you can get away with it in emails, maybe. But in real life, for goodness sake, say the words. SAY THE WORDS. The more technical the jargon, the more likely that someone in the room doesn’t understand it, but is too afraid to say. The more simple the jargon, the more annoying a person you are, because for the love of god just say the words. One more EOP and IOU your P45. 

So BBH, I came, I made mistakes, I regret nothing. The more we talk about our failures the better we become. It’s like Chumbawamba said: “I get knocked down, but I get up again, You are never gonna keep me down”. Despite the whiskey, vodka and cider drinks, I think they really knew what they were talking about.