Failure as Catalyst

By Russell Sapienza, Partner, Entertainment, Media & Communications, PwC

 
 

In digital media – an industry destined to be perpetually young – it seems we’ve aged enough to look at our failures in a new light. Coming out of Advertising Week, we’re all seeing the usual buzz around new digital technologies and promising platforms that are proving to be disruptive. There’s that ever-present sense of anxiety and excitement that so often underlies our industry’s culture of creativity and innovation. We’re engaged, driven and eager to learn. And we’re always asking, what’s next?

 
 

And when we look at the progression of this industry, we really are still in the early stages. After all, when we say “back in the day,” we usually mean 15-20 years ago, rather than 50. But two decades is well, two decades. A lot has happened in the digital media arena during that time – and it hasn’t been a straight path. We’ve certainly documented, analyzed and discussed the most colorful missteps. But, we’re also starting to increasingly look back and see that our collective failures – which haven’t been cheap or painless – have a place. In many cases, they’ve ultimately paved the way to success for so many.

 
 

This is certainly a good thing. It’s also a natural progression that most industries recognize at some point. Marc Ecko, Founder of Complex, may have said it best in that “success is the hangover of failure.” Marc was one of four participants in a PwC-produced panel I participated in last week. The group of digital pioneers also included Jonathan Simpson-Bint, Chief Revenue Officer of Twitch; David Grant, Founder and President of PopSugar Studios; and Robert Levitan, Co-Founder of iVillage, and current Co-Founder of Live.

 
 

Brought together to share their insights with regard to developing and re-inventing digital media experiences, these industry leaders are indeed pioneers. And, with multiple start-ups between them, they had much to share on subjects like attracting talent, motivating employees, fostering creativity and, of course, creating digital media enterprises that attract and retain loyal audiences.

 
 

As I mentioned during the discussion, everyone seemed to agree that we work in an industry that tends to focus on building spaceships rather than cars. This requires a very different approach to innovation. In this vein, this group shared one thing in common – on the path to success they also encountered failure, sometimes spectacularly so.

 
 

But, they’ve reached a point in their careers, where they can look back and see a pattern. Failure – when harnessed constructively – often leads to success. It can act as a catalyst to accelerate change and adoption of new ideas and ways of looking at things. This seems to be an imperative in an industry going through constant evolvement.

 
 

It’s definitely not easy. Ecko also hit the nail on the head when he said, “You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself” and “in real life, failure can be helpful . . . it keeps you sober and in-check.” What a tall order for our industry – that sense that standing outside of the box, literally – and taking risk is part of the path to success. Of course, this is part of what makes digital media so perpetually young – and so exciting for so many. Mistakes are part of the fabric of what we do. They are a part of our DNA because we are constantly launching new ventures.

 
 

Missteps are no doubt an integral aspect of healthy start-ups. According to Robert Levitan, “strategic prototyping” is the secret weapon for successful start-ups. “Strategic prototyping is better than strategic planning . . . while you’re prototyping and learning on the fly . . . the big companies will spend six months strategic planning . . . and that’s how you beat them.” Robert’s right of course. You can’t really move fast if you’re not willing to make mistakes.

 
 

The other part of the equation relates to how you address the inevitable potholes along the way. Jonathan Simpson-Bint likened it to essentially managing failure – “you can’t be afraid to make mistakes . . . but you have to deal with them rapidly.” This is all about that relentless sense of innovation and experimentation until you get it right and, for consumer-facing digital media, getting it right means attracting big and sustainable audiences.

 
 

There’s a sense of “creative restlessness” that drives our industry, according to Ecko. You can’t wait for the market to confirm that you are relevant. Rather digital media start-ups have to embrace risks and continually modify their business models until they succeed. Mishaps are inevitable. It’s how you address them that matters. David Grant framed it most effectively, “first you have to admit when you’re failing . . . the sooner you recognize it the better . . . and, second, you have to learn from failure.”

 
 

This is wise advice from a group of industry leaders who haven’t stopped building new ventures. Like the digital media industry, they’ve reached a point when they can look back and see a pattern: failure often leads to success. In an eternally young ecosystem marked by constant change – the path ahead is never perfect. The difference is today’s innovators have the benefit of learning from the pioneers who laid the groundwork. We now have visionaries willing to share, and we can be very thankful for that.

 
 

Russell is a senior partner in PwC’s Advisory Practice with 34 years of experience in the media, entertainment, communications, and financial services industries. He has several distinct roles, including:

 
 

• Lead Partner for various global advertising, media & entertainment clients.

 

• New York Advisory Leader for PwC’s entertainment, media, and communications practice.

 

• Advertising Week Board Member

 
 

PwC’s Advisory practice works with clients to implement and execute the operational, financial, and management structures necessary to achieve revenue growth objectives. Russ focuses on areas such as business strategy, revenue growth, new business design and launch, business process controls, compliance (in areas such as consumer privacy) and risk management.

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