“Hey Everyone, I Screwed Up at My Job!”A Tale from the 2015 DMA Nonprofit Federation Conference

When people succeed at something—anything—we tend to pat ourselves on the back and move on. We don’t spend nearly as much time and energy dissecting a success to figure out what went right as we do picking apart a failure to determine what went wrong.

Focusing on the negative—the failure—is human nature, and we evolved that way for the sake of survival. If we fail to understand what has harmed us in the past, we are doomed to repeat it, quite possibly to our own demise.

This survivalist mentality plays out too in the jungle of direct marketing. Yes, we can and do learn from success, but more often than not it is the whopping, burning failures that teach us. Failure starts a conversation. Failure begs the question, “Why?”

Yet today, many of us fear that showing professional vulnerability—ok, let’s call it what it is, failure—carries too high a risk for a big burn, if not to your career, at least to your ego. Especially if your failure goes public. Especially if you stand before a roomful of 50 of your peers, clients, and industry colleagues, and say, “Hey, I screwed up at my job! Look what I did wrong as a professional!”

So I had to throw aside a few misgivings recently when I signed up to do just that—publically confess my creative failures in an educational session I co-presented at the DMA Nonprofit Federation Conference, alongside my courageous fellow direct marketers, Steve Maggio, President and Chief Creative Officer at DaVinci Direct, and Aimee Gibbons, Senior Membership Manager at EDF.

To be fair, screw-ups were only half the point of the session, called “Monumental Wins and Epic Fails.” At least that was the plan, as my co-presenters and I trotted out our direct marketing victories and failures. But wouldn’t you know, no one seemed to care so much about the wins. It was mostly about the failures. Naturally.

At CCAH, failure analysis is something we do internally if creative misses the mark. We call this analysis a “post-mortem” because the goal is to determine what killed the campaign. But it’s one thing to admit your creative shortcomings to your teammates in a private office. It’s another to put them on display at a conference.

Still, we shouldn’t shy away from shining the white hot spotlight on our failures, because it will likely turn out to be a fantastic learning opportunity, for you and for those you share with.

I need not have feared taking my turn in the hot seat at the DMA-NF, because in the end every single one of us—panelist, moderator, or attendee—benefited. People asked thought-provoking questions about the failures. Nonprofit partners and agencies alike chimed in with great ideas of how to improve. The failures prompted the learning. There was a spirit of support, of sharing, of figuring it out together. Because hey, haven’t we all been there before?

So go ahead, dig up your failures. Share them. It may burn a little bit at first. But that’s ok. Because as The Boss once said, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” And isn’t that what we all want in the end? Fundraising that’s on fire? Red hot successes? It starts with your mistakes. So start right now. Put it out there in the comments—what’s a recent failure and what did you learn?

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