Why We Give Out an ‘Epic Fail Award’ to Employees


“Failure is not an option” is the official tagline for the 1995 motion picture Apollo 13. And while that’s a non-negotiable mantra for the actual Apollo moon landing, you can bet there were dozens upon dozens of incremental failures leading up to that historic event. If you need recent proof, just recall that the SpaceX program has had its share of sensational failures, from rusty nuts triggering in-flight explosions to propulsion rockets blowing up just before takeoff. 

The truth is, we all need to face failures when experimenting our way towards innovation successes. Even the best and most iconic brands fail (I’m looking at you Google Glass, Apple Newton, New Coke, and Amazon Fire Phone). What matters is how each of these brands learns from and reacts to their failures when designing and launching the next iteration of their products.

Five years ago, our agency Hill Holliday recognized that we needed to better welcome failure into our culture, in order to realize our vision of becoming one of the best creatively-driven modern marketing shops. Traditionally, we’ve done a lot as a company to celebrate individual and team successes, including our annual Jack Award—named after one of our founders, Jack Connors. This award honors a team whose ideas have had the greatest impact on our agency’s business and reputation through teamwork that integrates multiple disciplines, both inside and outside the walls of our agency. 

Mike Proulx, Chief Innovation Officer at Hill Holliday.

And while the Jack Award has traditionally recognized teams that take risks, innovate, and demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit, it is ultimately based on an outcome of success. But what about all of the projects that start with the best of intentions, demonstrate a workhorse mentality, epitomize our “humble, hungry, human” culture…yet are complete and utter failures? That’s why we introduced the annual Epic Fail Award in 2014. We wanted to cultivate the kind of guts and appetite for risk-taking that’s required of true innovators.

Despite its awful-sounding name, this award has become something that Hill Holliday employees strive to win. Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” And that’s exactly what we want to do at our agency: create work that’s so great, people can’t help but notice it. Often, that means failing in epic fashion during the creative and design process. 

Among the past Epic Fail Award winners are a VR prototype that ended up making everyone who tried it sick to their stomach, as well as a fully-produced, ready-to-launch social video campaign that got pulled at the 11th hour. But here’s the thing: in each of these instances the (epic) fail turned into a rousing success. That nausea-inducing VR prototype ended up becoming the first brand experience to use a  motion-tracked Oculus Rift, and it ultimately won all sorts of industry awards. And that risky social video campaign not only eventually launched, but it was so well-received by audiences on Facebook that we ended up producing it for broadcast television. And the best news of all? Both of these projects went on to win the Jack Award the year after they were deemed Epic Fails.

And that’s entirely the point. When people fear failure, they act safe. They rarely (if ever) take risks or stick their neck out for something they so passionately believe is the best thing to do. Low risk equals low reward. And when people act safe, they will only, at best, meet expectations. While that’s fine if you want to confine yourself and your company to an existence within the status quo, it’s not going to move the needle one bit if you actually want to disrupt, break through, or future-proof. You need to innovate. 

Failure is not an option when you’re landing on the moon. But when innovating, failure is not only an option that should be embraced; it must be an organizational imperative.