Failure Rules: Getting To Zero Waste

Last night I went to the Best of ESOMAR UK event, where three presenters gave repeat performances of award-winning presentations. (These events are great value, in fact they’re free, and ESOMAR are awesome for organising them.)

The winner of Best Presentation at last year’s Congress was Peter Totman’s “Fail Again, Fail Better”. It was hugely entertaining – if you get the chance to see Peter present it, do. At System1 we quote the “paradox of success” (ie. “you need failure to achieve it”) a lot, but as Totman points out, for all the motivational quotes extolling the virtues of failure, it still hurts. It hurts a lot.

Failure feels rubbish, and no amount of inspiration is going to change that. Its value is in what you learn from it, which means you need to have a system in place for extracting and using those learnings.

This is one of the reasons we talk about “zero waste” in marketing as a goal alongside profitable growth, something we want to help businesses and brands achieve.

To get to zero waste, you need a constructive relationship with failure. You need to identify it, act on it, and learn from it.

Identifying it is actually the simpler part. Test everything, assume nothing. It’s what you do next that counts. Because frankly, you’re probably going to have a lot of waste – plenty of failures. Most ads don’t build brands long-term. Most launches fail. Most brands aren’t famous. You can’t spend equal time on them all.

We recommend a “kill or cure” testing philosophy. Our market research tools use a standard, 1-Star to 5-Star scale for whatever we are testing. The aim is to get 3-Stars or above – the point in our validations where profitable growth can be safely predicted. That leaves the 1-Star and 2-Star marketing, and here’s where your process for failure kicks in.

In most cases, we strongly suggest killing 1-Star marketing – be it ads or ideas. 1-Star marketing is marketing it would take far too much investment and time to turn around. It’s a filter for wasted effort. It’s failure you can act on right away, saving you time and money.

2-Star marketing is different. It often has strong elements and redeeming features. It might be only a tweak or nudge from profitable growth – a slightly better soundtrack or different editing choices in a video, maybe..

2-Star marketing is failure you learn from, deciding whether to invest in improving it.

Taken together – ditching 1-Star marketing, optimising selected 2-Star work – it’s an approach to failure that can help you get to zero waste.


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident, creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand tracking tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.

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