Two Ways I Was a Massive Failure: Marketing Edition

By: Citizen Inc.

Oh, failure. In our professional lives, we tend to talk up our accomplishments and minimize our failures.

That rarely gives you anything to improve upon. Instead: embrace your failure. Make a nice collage out of it. Sing your failure’s praises. Write songs in honor of how badly you’ve screwed the pooch. Whatever you need to do to learn from your fails and move on, do that thing.

In the Citizen studio, it’s writing about our biggest fails. This week, I’m on deck for marketing fails. Last week, Ryan shared some design fails—definitely go read that after this, even if you’ve never designed anything in your life.

1. The fail: Not doing due diligence on the difference between two kinds of cows

The story:

One of my favorite clients was an insurance company; their biggest offering was farm and related agricultural insurance. On social media, I was responsible for posting relevant and timely content about their interests.

One day, I tweeted something about dairy cows and used an image from a free stock photography site. They had a not-small social media following for a modestly sized insurance company.

I was instantly called out by a social media follower that the cow I used was a livestock cow. Not a dairy cow.


If the client noticed, they never said anything. I immediately purchased a proper stock photo, deleted the tweet, and posted a new tweet with the correct cow.

Lessons learned:

  • There are different types of cows.
  • Spend the money to make the thing good. Don’t cheap out when reputations are at stake.
  • Familiarize yourself with your client’s offerings so much that you know them in your sleep. They’re relying on you to represent them well, and if you look like a fool on the internet, it makes them look like a fool. Which is bad. Since they’re paying your salary. Which they can easily stop doing.
2. The fail: Applying the principle of “done is better than perfect” to high stakes social media ads

The story:

Many moons ago, I was a marketing specialist at a marketing agency. I had a contentious client who seemed to live on the cusp of canceling services. During Thanksgiving, I worked with the visual design team and the account direction team to create social media ads for the client’s huge Black Friday sale. They did a fair amount of their business through eCommerce, so this sale was significant.

The visual designer created lovely assets; everyone was blown away by them. I had three individuals sign off on the visual and copy of the ad—including the client. For the unfamiliar, social media ads usually have three components: an image, ad copy, and a link to the good or service being promoted. Often, but not always, all three are present. Guess what yours truly failed to include? If you guessed “link,” you’d be right.

On Thanksgiving afternoon, my manager emailed me from the airport, telling me she was disappointed I had not included a link to the client’s website in the social media ad.

Cue major internal panic.

The client was very upset and their account director had to talk them out of canceling services. Again. My manager had to re-do all of my ads while she was waiting for her flight home to spend time with her family. On Thanksgiving Day.

It was mortifying, and the second-biggest fail of my professional career.

Lessons learned:

  • I love Sheryl Sandberg, but her quote “done is better than perfect” does not apply to everything.
  • Know all the elements of a deliverable ahead of time and make sure they correspond to your client’s goals.
  • Don’t rely on others to catch your mistakes.
  • Apologize well.

Failure is good, bitter medicine. Nobody loves the sinking feeling in their stomach when they’ve just screwed something up. But, I guarantee that when you fail big, you won’t forget it. In my case, it can make you a better communicator, a better writer, and if you’re very lucky—a better human.

Illustrations by Visual Designer, Becca Charlier-Matthews.