Failure in any creative endeavor is part of the process. You need to try stuff, sometimes it needs to fail, and you have to be okay with that. The best creatives have short memories. They learn from each path taken, and move on.
Failure in advertising is unique in that it is often a collaborative effort. In 2006, I was part of a team of twelve in the Wieden+Kennedy 12 program—an advertising school within the Portland office.Because it was a school, it naturally had a culture of experimentation. This wasn’t only measured in terms of the output, but also in how the twelve of us worked together.
The program’s Director, Jelly Helm, made sure we would have exposure to the agency’s own process and culture—the probiotics behind the work. We weren’t employees at W+K, but we were made to feel part of the agency. We got to walk the office and observe how they worked with each other. We saw it wasn’t lone geniuses working in dark corners. It was drafts up on walls for everyone to see, and open debates about ideas among teams. It reminded me of my experience in law school, where learning was open and “Socratic” amongst the entire class.
Early on in the program, I admit to struggling with this kind of collaboration—especially in such a large team. As a former editorial cartoonist and graphic designer, when it came to creativity I was more comfortable working alone.
To assist our creative collaboration, Jelly enrolled us in an improv class. There was no “no” in improv. Everything, no matter how dumb or dead-end the idea passed along to you, was an invitation to make it better.
A few weeks after our improv classes, Jelly pointed to a large, empty wall near our space inside W+K.
“Let’s do something together on that wall,” he said,
“as a gift to the agency.”
Over the next week, the twelve of us thumbtacked hundreds of ideas for the wall. Some of us ideated in small groups, but mostly we continued to work individually.
I remember working on my own. I put up maybe fifty ideas, none of which Jelly cared for.
When I described my idea for a giant dinosaur mural with “Fail Harder” as the tagline—a memorial to the greatest failures of all time—Jelly politely nodded.
He wasn’t interested in dinosaurs.
Jelly saw an invitation to the others. What could they bring to Fail harder? As it turned out, quite a lot.
One person suggested subverting the tone of Fail Harder
with a sophisticated script typeface. Another person explored the idea of working in a medium that would make the wall shine—like beads, or glass. A few others had noticed how the clear push pins in our ideation wall shimmered when they were bunched together tightly. The entire group kept following this thread, experimenting in the aesthetics of office supplies. We made several bunched rows of clear push pins in the wall as a test.
It had an iridescence that could scale beautifully.
Quickly, a vision (and brief) began to emerge: render Fail Harder in pushpin bling. On the Thursday night prior to Memorial Day weekend, we outlined Fail Harder in a large, sophisticated script on the wall. The next morning, the agency came in and saw the first stage of our idea. We left out tools and supplies from previous evenings work, signaling that were not yet done.
Everyone assumed we would be filling the inside of the word. But to truly bring the idea Fail Harder to life, we had to tempt fate ourselves.
Once the agency cleared for the long weekend, we started again, except we would fill in the entirety of
the wall—leaving the inside of the words empty. This would require buying every box of clear push pins in town, and driving them cleanly and evenly into the wall.
For the next 72 hours, the twelve of us camped at the wall,
working in shifts. As a group we innovated quickly to perfect our process. We figured out the fastest way to put push pins into a wall: fill the end of an empty interchangeable screwdriver head with pushpin, drive it into the wall. Reload and repeat more than 100,000 times.
When the agency returned from the long weekend and saw the wall glowing with the sparkle of all those push pins, they were astonished. None so more than I, who had forgotten my visions of dinosaurs.
Never could I have done something like this on my own. Standing in front of the finished wall, I felt the power of
our group of twelve.
It demonstrated to me why agencies will always matter: the collaboration of talented individuals. A great agency
is a safe place where one can fail, and share it with others.
The message of Fail Harder is to never hold back. Trust others around you, because they will show you
a greater idea than you ever knew you had.
photo by Mike Giepert
photo by Mike Giepert