How many hours of your life have you wasted coming up with the perfect creative marketing idea? We all fear failure. We all strive to get things perfect because perfection is good, it’ll please to boss, and it should work. Get it perfectly right, and your marketing will wow your colleagues, and lead to increased sales, and all other manner of good things. Except it doesn’t.
Aiming for perfection is the enemy of creativity. Just ask Leonard Cohen (if you could—he’s dead now, so that would be tricky). He spent two years writing one song which he could never get right. When he finally did record it, his record label, Sony, refused to release it. They said it was a dirge. One executive famously told him, “We know you’re a genius, we just don’t know if you’re any good.”
The song was called “Hallelujah”. You might have heard it from the cover versions done by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, k.d. Laing, Bono, Rufus Wainwright, Alexandra Burke, and many others. Or you remember it from the movie Shrek. At one point a few years ago, three versions of the song were in the Top 10 in the UK charts at the same time.
It’s got to be perfect
In the final years of his life, that song, and Cohen himself, were celebrated. But when he was writing the song, it kept eluding him. He was 50 years old in 1984, and hadn’t had a hit record in years. He wrote 80 verses for it—80 verses that swung between religious meditation, observations on sex and heartache, and wry one-liners.
For ten years, he later told the CBC, no-one else (except Bob Dylan) thought the song was any good. Then former Velvet Underground member John Cale got in touch asking for some lyrics, so he could do a cover version of the song on a tribute album. Cohen faxed him 15 pages of lyrics.
Into the silence
It’s tempting to think there was something wrong with Cohen’s own version of the song that stopped it from being an immediate success. Maybe he initially chose the wrong verses (he didn’t). Maybe the musical arrangement was wrong (it wasn’t). Perhaps he should have used different instruments to play it (doesn’t matter—John Cale’s piano arrangement is just as good as Jeff Buckley’s guitar arrangement, which is just as good as the orchestral sweep of k.d. Laing).
The original song is just as good as any of the others. Just as creative. Its initial failure lies simply in the silence that greeted it.
That’s what creative failure is. Silence. Being ignored. And that’s not such a bad thing.
When you think about it, the worst possible outcome from creating content that isn’t perfect is just that no-one pays attention to it.
The non-existent consequences of failure
When you think of failure in your job, you think of the catastrophic consequences. You think about letting your clients down, or your colleagues, or yourself.
Even thinking of those things in broad terms makes you a little sick. You’ll do anything to avoid that, which is a good thing. You should avoid letting people down.
But failure in terms of creative marketing ideas isn’t going to have that effect. At the very best, it’s going to pave the way for more, and better ideas. At the worst, no-one will notice.
We remember the fact that the artistic genius of Pablo Picasso resulted in cubism, and a swerve in the direction of 20th century art. But we don’t remember his poetry, which was just as creative according to his own terms. We celebrate Beethoven’s emotionally stirring classical masterpieces—but no-one really remembers or cares about his “Wellington’s Victory”. Even Beethoven himself thought it was pretty bland. But with inspired self-confidence, he still justified it by saying to critics, “What I shit is still better than anything you could ever think.”
Even Bob Dylan—the Nobel Prize laureate who was the only songwriter to appreciate the genius of “Hallelujah”—created work that no-one remembers. His 2009 Christmas album, “Christmas in the Heart”, is creatively successful on his own terms. But I don’t know of anyone listing it today as a significant piece of creativity.
Perfection vs precision in creative marketing
Perfection is often confused with precision. Being precise is fine. It was more important back in the days when publication or broadcast stood as the last step in a creative process. Nowadays, in the world of digital publishing and 301-redirects, anything can be revised immediately. So by all means, strive to be precise with your grammar and spelling and stuff. Make sure you edit your work, and don’t defame anyone.
But don’t try to be perfect. There is no downside to creating something imperfect. Creativity involves getting things done, and as such, striving for perfection will always be the enemy of creativity.
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