In 1718, when he was 13, John Byng joined the Royal Navy.
He was a good sailor, he worked his way up until he became an Admiral.
In 1756, Minorca was invaded by the French, and Byng was sent to relieve the British garrison.
He complained he was given too few ships in poor condition, and too few men.
He was told to shut up and just do his job.
In a sea battle off Minorca, the British and French each lost about 200 men.
Byng sailed to Gibraltar to repair his ships and try again, he picked up more men and four more ships.
But before he could set sail for Minorca he was ordered to return to England.
Minorca had fallen to the French and Byng was court-martialled.
By going to Gibraltar, he was judged to have exceeded his orders.
He was judged not to have done “his utmost against the enemy in battle or pursuit.”
Admiral Byng was sentenced to death.
And in 1757, Admiral Byng knelt on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch.
Witnessed by the entire fleet, at anchor off Portsmouth, an Admiral was shot to death by a firing squad of marines.
Voltaire wrote that the purpose of this execution was “Pour encourages les autres” – to encourage the others.
And it did, the British learned you follow orders, however unreasonable, or else.
So that at the Somme, 150 years later, soldiers were told to get up and walk towards the German lines, under no circumstances were they to run.
The soldiers did as they were told.
And by the end of that first day there were fifty thousand British casualties.
They unquestioningly followed orders that made no sense.
Because they knew, from Admiral Byng’s example, what happened if you disobeyed orders.
No one wants that fate, so they did what they were told.
Which is the way it works in most advertising agencies.
The brief arrives and it is not there to be questioned, it is there to be followed.
The creative director is told, just shut up and do your job.
Otherwise the creative director gets fired.
No one is interested in their opinion, just shut up and do your job.
Steve Jobs was another example of this.
Having started Apple, he didn’t like the direction it was headed in.
He began to question the board’s decisions.
But the board represented the shareholders, they told him to shut up and just do his job.
Jobs continued to question the board’s decisions, so he was fired.
Several years later, Apple was about to go out of business.
The only option open to them was to bring Steve Jobs back.
He began to undo all the bad decisions they were making when he was fired.
Apple is now the most valuable company in the world.
Because Steve Jobs didn’t just shut up and do his job.
He questioned what was going on.
Questioning should be the job of every creative person, everywhere.
If the brief is right it will stand up to scrutiny.
If the brief is wrong it will fall apart.
So the only reason not to question the brief is that whoever wrote it suspects it’s wrong.
And they are too lazy or insecure to allow it to be questioned.
That’s why my favourite Steve Jobs quote about creativity relates back to Admiral Byng:
“Why would you want to join the navy when you could be a pirate?”