Has any of the following happened to you? The company’s big product launch is late. Your CEO tells you your new brochure has a typo. Your expensive marketing campaign didn’t meet the forecast number of leads or orders. Your university’s new website is roundly criticized by key constituents.  If so, you are not alone. In fact, virtually every veteran marketer I know has experienced issues like this, and others.

When assessing what went wrong from a marketing perspective and, more importantly, ensuring it’s not repeated, there are several questions to start with, including these:

  • Did you have a solid strategic plan in place to start the project?
  • Was a realistic timeline set, with reviews at key milestone dates?
  • Did you have quantifiable goals for the project?
  • Were all team (especially inter-team) members clear on their responsibilities?
  • Did you perform a deep dive and pinpoint what went awry?

Even in top organizations, which tend to be fast-paced but well-managed, errors occur. What has distinguished great companies is their ability to respond effectively and quickly to their mistakes. Johnson & Johnson is often lauded for their proactive response to the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. The big consideration for most companies, in marketing, engineering, production or other key areas, are usually how well they manage the fallout and how they identify and solve the root cause of the error.

There is another, oft-overlooked element to these stories. How do you and your organization assess accountability and manage the conflict that comes out of failure? There are two critical components in this equation: what is the organizational culture, and how accountable are the individual team members?

SelfiesToday, many broader forces are converging to make passing the buck de facto in some circles. Here are three of the major factors, some of which are closely related:

  • The rise of narcissism: People are increasingly fascinated by themselves, and the lens through which they view the world has changed. It’s no accident that the cameras in most cell phones, now the primary storyboard for our narratives, default to selfie mode. In a world progressively revolving more around ourselves, there is less introspection and listening, perhaps the single most crucial skill to teamwork and conflict resolution.
  • Social media and technology acceleration. Self-involvement is closely tied to the stunning growth of our social media channels, especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These platforms engender endless debate about their effects on society; what’s beyond dispute is that the addictive online experiences, accompanied by omnipresent broadband and high-powered devices, have led to surge in self-promotion and its deadly side effect, reduced awareness of others. It’s now confirmed that Facebook especially puts Social media on Phonemany users in an echo chamber where their own views are reinforced and dissenting points are muted.
  • Role models and social divisions: As marketers, we know the role of “influencers” is a hot topic. The profile of people who influence major trends in society has morphed rapidly in the last decade, with many leaders being elevated less for expertise, judgment and trustworthiness than for their ability to stir passion and amplify particular opinions. Concurrently, data confirm that the U.S. is as deeply divided as it has been since the ‘60s, and that partisan split is reflected in the divergent media viewpoints. There is little chance for reasoned debate and common ground, which has further inflamed discussions and exacerbated finger-pointing, with social media acting as an accelerant. Taking responsibility and apologizing for mistakes is totally out of style today.

With these dynamic forces swirling, perhaps it’s not surprising that some of our bedrock institutions are quick to deflect, deny, dodge, or attack their accusers. For our purposes as marketers, however, arrogant and clueless corporate malfeasance is the best representation of today’s lack of accountability. Consider the following scenarios in just the last year or so (tip o’ the hat to Forbes magazine for some of these examples):

  • United drags a passenger off a plane to worldwide condemnation – and responds with corporate BS and empty apologies.
  • Uber is embroiled in problems of sexual harassment and altering software to skirt restrictions on its operating territory. While it fires its founder, the take-no-prisoners culture remains.
  • Equifax exposes nearly half of Americans to serious data risks, takes two months to report – and then reveals a much wider breach five months later.
  • Japanese companies Mitsubishi and Kobi Steel mis-represent fuel efficiency and steel quality respectively, ‘fessing up only when caught.
  • Wells Fargo created fake customer accounts for and sold unneeded insurance to millions of unsuspecting customers.
  • Facebook was either fooled by or turned a blind eye to a con from Cambridge Analytica, with allowed data on tens of millions of customers to be misused for political purposes.**

** Note: This sort of blaming is not new. In 1998, Bill Gates’s combative, tone-deaf congressional testimony about Microsoft’s potential monopoly power harmed his company. Mark Zuckerberg was viewed as much more open to change and even new regulation for Facebook in the wake of their condemnation after the data breach.

While these scandals varied widely by the type of organization and outcome, they shared some crucial similarities. One of the biggest was the failure of the company’s culture and its individual leaders to look in the mirror first. Organizations built on sound management principles, or even a single or small group of open-minded leaders, embrace accountability even when it causes short- and occasionally long-term pain. By first considering the possibility that they are wrong, by starting with a hard look at their own practices and operations versus reflexively – or insidiously – blaming others, these groups address the problem they created quickly and can begin the tough road to recovery.

Tips for Marketers to Address Potentially Self-Inflicted Wounds

When you first sense trouble with your campaign or project:

  • Look in the mirror first! Are YOU meeting your agreed-upon responsibilities? Did you proof the ad, do the data select, get buy-in from sales and senior management, etc.?
  • Have you been a good teammate – asking hard but reasonable questions, helping a teammate who’s struggling, filling in critical gaps you see rather than ignoring them and saying “not my problem”?
  • Are you socializing the project internally, collaborating with friendly colleagues to ensure the team’s work is getting that all-important imprimatur from the rest of the company?
  • Are you doing your best to remain as objective as possible in your assessment?
  • Are you picking up on the broader culture dynamics of accountability – and deciding if this is the type of organization you want to commit to?

If your gaze into the mirror reflects a dropped ball or sloppy communication by you, step up to your mistake. If you’re afraid of doing that because you may lose your job, consider whether you want to work for an organization that places such a small value on such a crucial characteristic as accountability.


  • William Bullard

    William Bullard is a strategic marketer with extensive experience in the Internet, digital marketing, database marketing, content, and many related areas. His career was in direct marketing and wireless communications before he moved into education marketing. He recently founded EdChanges to help institutions leverage strategic marketing in a fast-changing landscape.