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Agencies are fired by clients every day.  Sure, some of these firings aren’t fair, but let’s deal with the ones that are. It’s a rare agency that can acknowledge failure for what it is. Why is this and how did we get here? I suspect the answer lies in our current cultural environment. 

I heard a post-game interview with a college football coach where he said his team matched up well with the other team and if a couple of breaks had gone their way they would have won.  His team lost by five touchdowns. I heard an NHL coach say he was proud of how his team had fought, but the other team had executed a little better. 

His team was swept from the playoffs in four straight games.  

We used to have a very technical term to describe games like these: They were called ass whuppings.  Ugly losses where you wonder what happened and how did you fail so miserably? You don’t look forward to them, you don’t enjoy being on the losing end, but it happens to everyone. At least it used to. The current fashion of acknowledging only the positives borders on a dangerous naïveté.  There’s such a fear of admitting to a loss that those in charge grasp for any positive point to assuage their feelings of failure and embarrassment...”our uniforms were clean and we photographed well.”  In fact, failing to admit a loss and understand it’s details only increases the chance it will happen again. The losers will feign surprise and this non-virtuous circle starts over.  

If you never acknowledge a loss, you don’t get the benefits of a post-event analysis. The military calls them After Action Reports and they’re done after successes and failures because there’s learning in both.  Smart leaders can dissect a loss and teach those around them to recognize the signs so the chances of it happening again are diminished.  

Some senior agency folks are unable to come to grips with a loss and pretend it didn’t happen.  Maybe that’s their public face, and internally they’re diving into why they were canned, but I doubt it. There’s always an award to be won even for campaigns that are massive failures and maybe even get the agency and/or clients fired.   

I saw an agency CEO deal with this in a candid and impressive way.  When her agency was fired she said “We were wrong from the start. We didn’t understand the business like we should have and we didn’t perform well. The business declined on our watch and they’ll be better served elsewhere.”

That’s a leader who will make sure her team understands what happened so it doesn’t happen the same way again.  She knows what business she’s in, and I’m betting she’ll continue to lead successfully.  You can’t help but be impressed by her candor.  She knew how to lose.

I’m also betting that college coach has a six touchdown loss in the near future and the NHL coach gets bounced in four straight games again.  Forgetting how to lose means you deserve constant reminders of how to do just that.