'There’s a lot to be learnt from mistakes – even better if they’re someone else’s' - Fraser Allen

Tucked away in a mews in ­Edinburgh’s west end is a charming curiosity of a building called the Library of Mistakes. A free public resource created by finance expert ­Professor Russell Napier, it’s intended as a reminder to us all that, if we take time to learn from the mistakes of the past, our future is likely to be brighter.

Monday, 3rd February 2020, 6:05 am

Apart from nearly 4,000 books (with an emphasis on business and finance), the library also has very comfortable ­armchairs. Here it was that I found myself one winter afternoon, reflecting on the fact that after running content agency White Light Media for 18 years, I had just sold the business and exciting new horizons ­beckoned.

It seemed like a good time to pick out some of the things I’d learnt from running a business that has worked on projects for blue-chip brands such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group, Standard Life and Tesco.

Technology has, of course, advanced a lot since I started White Light. Yet, the innovations we’re seeing now will one day seem just as quaint as typesetters, fax machines and Ceefax. The technology will continue to evolve but, from a brand’s point of view, the most important elements of successful communications and marketing are the constants – the qualities that make campaigns work whether the medium is a town crier, a newspaper or digital content marketing.

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The keys to communication

The first consideration is trust. When a brand loses the trust of its customers, a slippery slope beckons – as the banks ­discovered in the wake of the 2008 ­financial crisis. In these data-driven times, brands and agencies need to be careful that customers don’t feel taken for granted or worse, exploited. The more desperate we become to learn about our customers, the more uneasy they may become.

The best way to win a customer’s trust is to demonstrate that you trust them. High street banks traditionally put their pens on chains because they were worried that people would steal them. That’s not a good look from a customer’s point of view.

As a result, many of the challenger banks are taking a much smarter approach to the trust dynamic, whether it’s digital brands such as Monzo or the Edinburgh-based private bank challenger Hampden & Co.

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Secondly, effective communication is all about the story. I’ve been involved in several projects where so much effort is invested in keeping internal stakeholders happy (negotiating user experience and brand guidelines, IT turf wars, an obsession with a new platform or an awkward boss) that the most important part of all – providing the target audience with something they will find genuinely useful and interesting – gets buried along the way. That’s why so much of the content that brands pump out gets ignored, and why truly thoughtful ­content shines.

Thirdly? Humility. The best agencies put themselves in their clients’ shoes. They view everything from their clients’ perspective, look out for them and support them. The best brands take the same approach to their ­customers. That means keeping egos under control. It also means sometimes taking a step back. In an era when many of us are frozen in the headlights of the present, it’s important to ensure that we consider the future and reflect on the experiences of the past.

That’s what helps to make the Library of Mistakes such a wonderful place for thinking, and if you ever visit, you might find me there. I’m now working independently, channelling all my energy and experience into helping ­clients with their communications and ­marketing projects.

Part of my new routine involves delving into the library’s collection to post nuggets of ­wisdom on its Twitter feed (@EdinburghLoM). There’s a lot to be learnt from mistakes – and it’s even better if they are someone else’s.

- Fraser Allen is founder of Fraser Allen ­Communications and presents the Scottish Business Network podcast.