In The Pulse's Mea Culpa series, marketing leaders share their biggest mistakes, and what they learned from them. In this edition, Mable’s Director of Growth Ventures, Matt Gudge, shares how he's made learning from failure business as usual. It all started with a disastrous pitch that reframed his approach to marketing and leadership.
In the competitive and rapidly evolving world of marketing, we’re all pushing boundaries to get results. Sometimes we nail it. Sometimes we fall flat. While it’s human nature to highlight our wins, failures can be the catalysts that propel us toward future success. No one knows this better than Matt Gudge, a growth marketer with 14 years of experience across e-commerce, FMCG, B2B, healthcare, and finance in the UK and Australia.
Earlier this year, after four years at the helm of marketing for Big Red Group, Matt became Director of Growth Ventures at Mable, an Australian healthtech company connecting people looking for disability and aged care support with independent support workers. Before moving down under, Matt worked at a leading agency in the UK and it was there that he experienced his most memorable failure, one that shifted his mindset and helped him become the respected marketing leader he is today.
The pitch that tanked
“I was asked to lead a pitch for an incumbent client and I was super excited. We lost that pitch, which is very normal in an agency landscape. Often you share responsibility in a situation like that because the creative wasn’t quite right or the strategy wasn’t there or the chemistry wasn’t in the room or a mix of all the above. But when I sat with that failure it was instantly evident what had gone wrong and it was 100% my fault.”
When asked why he takes full responsibility for losing the client, Matt is surprisingly upfront in admitting that his ego played a big role. Instead of focusing on the client and the objective of the brief, Matt was striving to build his own career by creating work that would showcase his marketing skills and make noise in the industry.
“It quickly landed with me as an ego problem more than a pitch problem. I don’t think I considered the client at all. Nike had just released these game-changing ads. I sat there as a mid-level marketer looking at the Cannes Lions awards and I wanted to do that calibre of work. Some clients are looking to make those heavily emotive or innovative ads. For others, it’s not always relevant. The work that I wanted to produce wasn’t right for the client. In the room, it became instantly obvious that we were not on the same page and the client was actively frustrated. I made it the 'Matt show' not the marketing show, and that led to so many significant changes in the way I approached both marketing and leadership as I moved forward.”
Processing ‘Pitchgate’ to create great work that works
Once Matt processed his feelings of fear, disappointment, and frustration, he leveraged his mistake to build new frameworks that enable ongoing self-reflection. His approach includes a post-failure checklist that analyses the process, the drivers, and the data underpinning any misstep.
Since ‘Pitchgate’, Matt’s marketing teams have become very familiar with his motto, “Aim for great work that works.” He says the phrase reminds everyone that the work they produce can only be considered great if it’s anchored to the customer, the business, the brand, the category, the challenge, and the culture. In short, it’s not about you (the marketer), it’s about them (the customer, the agency-client, or the business you’re working within). This philosophy has remained relevant as Matt has progressed from agency land into in-house leadership roles.
“As a leader, I have to ensure that our work is answering the objectives of the business, overcoming short and long-term challenges. Are we playing competitively? Are we enabling and inspiring teams to do their best work? You can still inspire teams and inspire businesses to do bigger, bolder, more impressive, and widespread work but it has to be anchored in delivering the right work. Not just the work you love.”
Failure and marketing innovation go hand in hand
Creative fields require courage as we seek new and innovative ways to connect with customers. In growth marketing, there are no guarantees about how a customer will respond, no matter how much you invest in A/B, digital, and creative testing. In an industry where outcomes are never certain, Matt says it’s vital to create a work environment where failure is not just tolerated but encouraged in the interests of innovation. What differentiates a positive failure from a not-so-positive failure is intent.
“When you think about creativity and all the classic marketing terms around disruption and innovation, if you want your team to do those things you have to create an environment where failure is okay. If they swing and miss but the intentions were right and the drivers were right, that’s very different than if they swing and miss but the reasons weren’t aligned to the business. The swings need to be laddering up to a bigger objective as well as delivering short-term results. Failures are only a problem when they form a pattern.”
Setting the standard you want to see
If leaders encourage their marketing teams to take risks, Matt advises them to back it up with accountability. Effective leadership is about having your team’s back and setting the standard you expect to see.
“When you’re a leader, any failures are your fault first, no matter what happened within the team. If you’re not ruthless with yourself, your actions, and the key takeaways then no one else will be. Start setting expectations so your team can be freer—have conversations, challenge and be challenged openly, build testing frameworks, and be clear on expectations. If you make a mistake, put your hand up instantly then do a post-failure review so you never stop learning and trying again. You are a mirror to your team so you need to set the behaviors you expect and work with them to get to great work, whatever form that may take.”
From big sting to big success
While it still stings when Matt recalls that disastrous pitch meeting in the UK, he is immensely grateful for everything it taught him about life and leadership. His lack of ego was evident when we asked him to share his proudest career achievement. Instead of referencing a successful campaign or award, Matt spoke about his team.
“In my time at Big Red Group before moving to Mable recently, we managed to create some great work with impactful results but the proudest result for me was my team engagement score. Out of 20-plus people, my management engagement score was 100%. That might sound like a humble brag but for me, it shows that we created an environment where people feel safe to do great work. Great work that works.”