For clients and agencies: Performing a Campaign Autopsy for Failed Campaigns

You understood the campaign objective. You prepared this campaign for weeks. You studied the audience and you know them better than they know themselves. You designed a clear path to achieving your objective. You launched a campaign, and then you waited. And waited. But, success never came. What now?

Well, a good agency will do a campaign autopsy, or a post-mortem report, to determine the good, bad, and ugly of any campaign, whether it was successful or not. Some of this will be presented to the client. Some of it will be presented and reviewed internally. Why dredge up the past and give up the opportunity to pass the buck? Because looking back on a failed campaign should never be about placing blame. A post-mortem will help you make the changes needed so the next campaign will be a success, and will demonstrate that the campaign was worth doing, at minimum, for the sake of learning how to be better.

So, despite everyone’s best efforts, the campaign sucked. Here’s what’s next and information to include in your post-mortem report:

  1. Identify if there were specific areas that dragged down the performance. As a team, take a look at every available data point available for every messaging channel used for the campaign. There’s usually a clear pattern showing which pieces flew and which flopped. Include everyone’s input because everyone brings multiple perspectives, which will make this step more thorough.
  2. Identify areas that performed better than the campaign average. Just as nobody is perfect, nothing is wholly flawed. This is where some key learnings that can be applied to the future will be housed and hopefully discovered by you. Don’t forget to include everyone’s input…
  3. Work with the full team to identify and come to a consensus on the reasons why the campaign didn’t perform well.
  4. Be clear, concise and honest, while remaining professional and avoiding blame. Most of the people you’re working with don’t have time to pour over pages and pages of findings. Make sure it’s easy for anyone with questions to understand your findings. If necessary, imagine you’re explaining it to 10 year old. Not because I’m underestimating the intelligence of the team, but because many of us are so ingrained in the technical details, we forget that not everyone else is. I’m going to touch on this subject overall in a later post (writing reports for comprehension and not just regurgitation of data), but for now, just make sure the findings you cover are easy to quickly grasp (also, the longer the explanation, the more it seems you’re trying to overcompensate).
  5. Above all, focus on the future. Sure, you’re digging up the campaign cadaver, but it’s really about how the findings will impact future recommendations, campaigns, and maybe even what you understand about the target audience. While something negative may have occurred, every mistake or misstep is an opportunity to grow. Figure out what that is and make recommendations on the greatest areas of opportunity to improve the next campaign.

For killing it with the next campaign, here are the recommended steps to take before and during the campaign:

Pre-campaign: Set everyone’s expectations

  1. Make sure everyone involved has the same expectations for the campaign outcomes. Estimated performance, as well as internal and external factors that influence the campaign outcome, should help establish what you expect to happen. This is an opportunity to make sure everyone knows what they’re accountable for and what is and is not within your control.
  2. Prepare agreed upon templates and schedule for ongoing reports throughout the campaign. This should be focused on the campaign goals and include only a couple of key data points and team assessments. This will help you keep tabs on the campaign progress and give you time to make adjustments needed to improve performance to the best of your ability. Ideally, this would include executive summaries provided a minimum of 4–7 days after launch and once a week throughout the campaign. A final campaign performance report should be done at least 2 weeks following the end of the campaign. All data points and topics should be agreed upon by everyone in advance of the campaign and everyone. *side note: the cadence and frequency of accurate data varies very widely between channels and tools, so please make sure the reporting request is reasonable to get usable and accurate data.
  3. Set-up times with the teams to quickly check-in throughout the campaign. This provides an opportunity to everyone to share what they’re seeing from their side and work as a team to optimize and improve the campaign on an ongoing basis. A minimum of twice a week or more, depending on size and length of the campaign.


  1. Watch the campaign like a hawk. Immediately and every moment afterward, make sure you have a good sense of how it’s performing and how people are reacting to it. Starting at launch, watch your social media feed, general mentions, and keep tabs of sentiment. Immediately screenshot and save everything you’re seeing that’s notable. Since there will be reporting, there will be quantitative data, so make sure you’re also capturing the qualitative information coming through. I recommend a minimum of a the start of the work day, at lunch, at the end of the work day, and before you head to bed. I also recommend setting up Google Alerts with your brand name so that you can be instantly notified as your brand is mentioned online (beyond social media). Share this with the team at check-ins.
  2. Continually optimize. If you see a specific key phrases of the campaign are resonating, add extra copy that highlights those aspects. If you see specific targets responding, focus more on those targets and find ways to expand upon that target. You can also dial back on things you see that aren’t working. The point is you should always be working towards success because usually, just launching is not enough. And, if you don’t take continuous steps to optimize, you’re missing multiple opportunities for success. Again, share with the team at check-ins!
  3. Optional: Everyone is different, but I like to prepare campaign stakeholders if a campaign is significantly underperforming. At the same time, I use the opportunity to let them know what we’re doing to improve the performance, but if there are folks that are expecting a homerun, it could have a worse impact if you wait until after the campaign is over to tell them that you struck out. I would wait until after you’ve tried a couple of optimization techniques first, so give it at least a week before you say anything. Hopefully, you can also let them know that the optimizations are already working.
  4. In case of emergency: If you can identify a key factor that’s killing your success, consider re-assessing your goals. You better have a damn good reason to do so, but there is a possibility that something happened before launch that made the original goals invalid. Be ready to share the damn good reason and how the revised goals are sure to be more accurate.

So, I won’t use the same Thomas Wayne/Alfred quote I’ve already used, but I will say that the best successes come at some level of risk. In advertising, if you’re not standing out, you’re standing back and maybe even in the shadows. Demand more and do more. Perseverance and action will provide a greater reward than regret for inaction.