The splendid 1983 film ‘The Right Stuff’ dramatises the early years of America’s manned space program. It takes us from the bold but unsung exploits of test pilots seeking to break the sound barrier after World War II, to the precision training of the Mercury astronauts under the glare of the media spotlight in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s a tale of determination, ingenuity, camaraderie and quite extraordinary bravery.
In one of the earlier scenes an Air Force Liaison Officer tells a group of test pilots about the need for positive media coverage in order to assure ongoing government funding.
‘Funding. That’s what makes your ships go up… No bucks, no Buck Rodgers. Whoever gets the funding gets the technology. Whoever gets the technology stays on top.’
Subsequently, as the elite astronauts are trained for their forthcoming missions, they are presented as all-American heroes to an enthusiastic press and an adoring public. This in turn guarantees the financial support required to research and develop the pioneering technology that will send the astronauts into space.
When at length NASA’s rocket scientists reveal the prototype for their space capsule, the astronauts are not impressed. They protest about the absence of windows, and of hatches with explosive bolts that they can open themselves in an emergency. But the scientists are reluctant to make any adjustments, because for them the astronauts are merely passive occupants of a rocket that will be controlled from the ground.
Fundamentally the astronauts resent being viewed as passengers, not pilots. They threaten to reveal to the press that they are being marginalised. If the public perception of their heroism is compromised, then the government funding for the programme will be compromised too.
‘No Buck Rodgers, no bucks.’
These scenes illustrate an intimate, circular relationship. Without the funding for technology and research, there would be no opportunity for the astronauts’ bold endeavours. And without heroic astronauts for the public to admire, there would be no money for research and technology.
I think a similar relationship pertains in creative businesses too. Without Clients posing challenges, commissioning work and paying bills, we would have no creatives imagining new possibilities, pioneering new frontiers, winning plaudits. And similarly, without the imagination, ideas and charisma of their creative talent, Agencies would find it hard to differentiate themselves, attract Clients and win business. No Clients, no creativity. And vice versa.
Sometimes Agencies can get this intimate relationship wrong.
I’ve seen creative leaders, seduced by their own sense of self-importance, disrespect the Clients that finance them. This is never attractive. I’ve observed Agencies disregard the bigger, more commercial accounts that are funding the smaller, more glamorous ones. I’ve witnessed Agency bosses celebrate the stars on the ‘Blue Riband’ businesses without thanking the foot-soldiers on the everyday.
An Agency that disconnects creativity from the commerce that sustains it will never win out.
Conversely, I’ve seen professed creative Agencies marginalise creative talent; exclude it from the core management of the business; disrespect it for its seeming lack of commercial sense. I’ve watched Agencies prioritise technology and process over people and ideas. I’ve observed profitability take precedence over product.
An Agency that fails to put creativity at the heart of its proposition, and creative talent at the heart of its leadership, runs the risk of commodifying its offer.
Everyone working in commercial creativity should respect the critical relationship between the business and its creative talent; a relationship that at its best is in equilibrium: No bucks, no Buck Rodgers. And vice versa.
In memory of Sam Shepard who died on 20 July 2017. Actor, screenwriter and master playwright of the tarnished American Dream, Shepard memorably played Chuck Yaeger in ‘The Right Stuff’:
‘Is that a man?’
‘You’re damn right it is!’