Here’s how the economist George Stigler put it:

“If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

Every decision, in other words, has a downside. But the nature of that downside – that’s up to us. Would you rather miss a flight every couple of years, or spend a lifetime getting to Heathrow three hours early? That’s your trade-off to make.

And, for the circumstances where we have to make similar kinds of decision over and over, ‘choose your mistakes’ is a useful heuristic both for making a decision and understanding its outcomes.

But, here’s the thing about marketers: we’re far too comfortable making the wrong kinds of mistake: the mistakes that come from risk-aversion and people-pleasing, not the mistakes of ambition and self-assurance.

Your data will not save you.

Data-driven marketing will not get you to the ‘right’ answer. That’s because no decision, whether high-level and strategic or low-down and tactical, is perfectly correct. There are always trade-offs and by doing one thing, you’re axiomatically not doing something else. Data might guide you one way or another, but down both paths, you will make mistakes. 

So what kind of mistakes are marketers comfortable making? Here are just a few that occur to me.

1) We’d rather impress our peers than do stuff that works.

I can walk into any pub in the UK, sing “Autoglass repair…” and I guarantee someone will sing ‘…Autoglass replace’ in response. The point is, jingles can work. Silly songs can work. Jokes can work. Sticking to the same core proposition for 10+ years usually works far better than a new brand campaign every 18 months. But those things tend not to make an industry splash or get your shelf creaking with Cannes Lions.

2) We’d rather rely on the numbers we control than deliver real results.

100 MQLs that lead to 80 closed deals are better than 500 MQLs that convert at 10%. But if those deals won’t come in until next year, and you’ve got to present to the board next week, which number do you want to go in armed with?

3) We’d rather win new customers than nurture the ones we have.

As with all things in ad land, new is exciting and old is meh. Which is why marketing initiatives (and budgets) continue to tilt towards acquisition, not retention and upsell – even though that’s where the revenue is.

4) We’d rather keep stakeholders happy than win round customers.

It might be the CTO who won’t sign off your ad until you’ve listed ten more product features. It might be the head of sales who wants to add a BUY NOW button to everything. Maybe it’s the CEO who just doesn’t like that shade of purple. When it comes to marketing, smiles and nods from internal teams come at the expense of engaging people out there.

5) We’d rather be logical and homogenous than irrational and stand-out.

As Rory Sutherland puts it: “It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to exactly the same place as your competitors.”

Make the right kind of mistakes.

The list above might seem like a sleight of hand. Like, it’s not really two kinds of mistake, it’s just a rundown of the ‘wrong’ way versus the ‘right’ way.

But that’s not how it is. Choosing all of the right-hand things above will lead to mistakes. Sometimes massive ones.

If your extremely effective work is constantly being sneered at on social media, it might make hiring new talent really difficult.

If you focus on a much smaller pool of hot leads, it’s likely you’ll miss out on some promising warm ones.

If you shoot for the moon with a creative idea that’s unlike anything else in your industry, it might be an embarrassing flop that gets you fired.

These are real risks. And avoiding the negative potential of those risks is precisely why marketing is biased towards certain kinds of mistakes and not others. It’s why, as marketers, we are far more prone to the errors that follow from herd-mentalities and vanity metrics, than the mistakes of maverick-thinking and holistic measurement.

But for marketing to be more effective – not just as a discipline, but as a business function – those are the kinds of mistakes we need to risk making. Because the upside of that risk is the eye-popping, competitor-outstripping, customer-focused, revenue-driving marketing that we actually want to do.

And, even better, when you choose your mistakes wisely, it means you don’t have to self-flagellate when things go wrong. As long as you’re making the right kind of mistakes, it means your plan is working.