By David Schwarz, Partner, Hush
In any risky endeavor, the human spirit and the physical body can find themselves pushed beyond their perceived limits. A person can run farther than previously thought or lift a heavier weight. Others can endure a psychological pressure far greater than they ever believed or fall more deeply in love than they thought possible. Every meaningful activity in life involves moving slightly past a threshold of risk and embracing the prospect of failure. This is, of course, a benchmark for success. So, why should risk-taking for corporations be any different?
Risk is at the center of any meaningful creative innovation, but somehow, it’s often abandoned in favor of tried and true practices within the corporate structure. It’s simply harder to get brands and corporations to embrace the inherent risk that comes with championing industry elevating ideas. But for outside agencies and studios who were born out of the iterative risk and failure associated with entrepreneurship, it is partially our responsibility to help our clients see the value of risk, and even failure, as a vital step towards success.
Convincing Clients to Embrace Risk
While it’s highly unlikely that a client or partner will revolutionize their risk tolerance overnight, there are several crucial, logical steps you can take to shift their mindsets and quell the demons. While these guidelines certainly aren’t foolproof, in concert, they comprise a viable methodology that can serve as an avenue for emphasizing the reward side of risk.
Build trust: Risk requires trust, so create methods to foster empathy before kicking off a project. Get to know each other before the work starts.
Start small: Risk always comes with the possibility of failure. But, failures can be large or small. They can be repeated or singular. You can fail on an hourly, daily or weekly basis.
Clients will likely accept small, incremental failures more than a giant flop, so start small. Showing them how to fail fast, as a learning tool, can happen on day one of a relationship: share all the things you did that didn’t work so they see how you arrived at what did. This demonstrates your ability to attack a challenge from many vantage points until you find the right one.
Be collaborative (not just in process but attitude): Collaborative creative processes go beyond the generic associations of “being a collaborative person.” You have to set up a process that forces collaboration because it is part of a methodology that your entire team lives by. If you work on things with your clients more intimately, or share them in your process, you will be forced to “fail together.” This shared responsibility and open dialogue means that they will be less likely to point fingers.
Avoid “rabbit-out-of-a-hat” presentations: If your primary interactions with your clients come in the form of that “big presentation meeting” and days or weeks of relative silence in between, it’s hard to create a relationship of experimentation, failure and innovation.
By creating more collaborative working relationships where even the big presentations are just incremental iterations of the work you’ve been doing with them all along, the tolerance for failed attempts that fuel new experiments will be much higher. You’ve let them into the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the process and they will likely be excited to participate. They’ll be on a shared path with your team.
Be personal and anecdotal: Admit your own failures along the way. Celebrate them fast, without delay, but show how they produced a specific piece of knowledge that is immediately applied to your next iterations. Also, don’t be scared to share past failures that might shed light on how things could work better in the future. Stop “selling” by trying to present a perfect facade.
Be honest about the risk-reward balance: Not all risks are equal and not all rewards are equal. Agencies are often put into positions where they try to get clients to take more risks, but they are unclear about how their clients value the reward. Show a willingness to dial-back risk taking if the reward isn’t significant enough.
Show clients you have empathy for their ability (or inability) to take risks and that you’re considerate of important forces in their organization that might make things difficult.
Arm them with information: While your direct clients might be risk tolerant and innovative, there are always others whose job function (or personality) is to be critical of risk and concerned about negative outcomes. Help your direct clients by arming them with information, strategies and ways to demonstrate intelligent risk-taking and failure “for strategic reasons” only.
Methodologies Can Be Meaningful
Without a consistent methodology and process that accepts incremental failure, embraces risk taking and constant self-evaluation, it will be infinitely harder for any corporation to stomach more innovative practices. These methodologies can create a risk framework that can also be transposed to anyone new in leadership, or even new groups within the same organization.
Ultimately, the goal is to create a client relationship that allows stakeholders to see the benefit of rapid failure and learning. It’s a delicate process of generating trust and empathy. While it can be difficult, the value is immense for each relationship individually, and also the industry at large. Yes, it’s a brand’s job to set expectations with its creative partners, and organize a stakeholder group that has a shared tolerance for risk. But as creative companies, we can also do our part, helping to demonstrate why pushing beyond boundaries should be a necessity, not an option. With the right approach, your clients may even become vocal advocates of riskier approaches to creativity.