You may be asking yourself what comparing two shows about fast cars has to do with creativity.
The answer is … quite a lot actually.
Let me explain.
It all comes down to a complicated juggling act which everyone and every company struggles with at one point or another:
The legacy of previous ideas vs the ability to generate new ideas.
You see, a lot of companies, and a lot of artists as well, think that they can continue to live off previous success.
Or even worse, just because you had a hit in the past, you don’t need the people who actually came up with and executed the ideas which created the hit anymore to keep having the same success.
This is what happened with Top Gear.
Back in the Good Old Days
For those of you who don’t know, Top Gear is a car show on the BBC which started in 1977. And for many years, it was quite popular. But it wasn’t until 2002, when the production team was changed and it installed the trio of hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond that it became a genuine global smash hit.
At this point, Top Gear continued to look for ways to think about cars and driving in a more humorous or impressive way. While previous decades of car journalism would focus on reviewing features, looks and performance, this new team wanted to provide more entertainment.
Like finding out if a car can race a bullet train.
Or drive across the deserts of Botswana.
Or whether you could build your own amphibious car out of an old Toyota and two speedboat motors, or it was more efficient to build a barge out of a van.
And instead of reviewing cars in a standard, journalistic way, they would go to the other extreme using metaphors. One of my personal favourite examples was when Clarkson was describing the sound of the (then) new Mercedes SLK:
When they debate as to what the sound of the SLK engine was akin to, the British engineers from McLaren said it sounded like a spitfire. But the German engineers from Mercedes said “Nein! Nein! Sounds like a Messerschmitt!” They were both wrong. It sounds like the God of Thunder, gargling with nails.
It was all over the top, and often offensive and extravagant, but it was filled with creative ideas, and the trio of hosts had unbelievable chemistry.
And people LOVED it.
In fact, it holds the Guinness World record for the most popular factual television programme in the world, watched by an audience of 350 million in 214 territories. (until recently, more on that later)
(until recently, more on that later)
For my friends and I, it was must-watch TV every weekend, even though most of us didn’t even have a car.
And it ended up being a huge money-maker for the BBC, worth more than £50 million annually, which is a huge amount as the BBC collects no advertising revenue in the UK.
But it was also rather controversial, with the BBC often receiving huge numbers of complaints about things said on the show (meant as jokes), such as Mexicans being lazy or Truck drivers murdering prostitutes.
And on that bombshell…
This all this came to a halt in March 2015, after Jeremy Clarkson verbally abused and punched another producer, leading to the BBC cancelling his contract. May and Hammond decided to join him in leaving the show.
Top Gear then announced that for the new season, radio star Chris Evans and TV star Matt Leblanc would take over hosting duties, with other motorists also hosting several segments. But the Top Gear name remained, eager to continue impressing viewers like in years gone by, as the BBC still owned the Intellectual Property.
The trio of Clarkson, May and Hammond meanwhile signed a deal with Amazon, to produce a motoring show called “The Grand Tour” for their Prime Video streaming-only service, and giving them a huge new budget to produce exactly the sort of content they want.
And in 2016, we have finally seen the result of what a difference these changes in personnel made. The latest season of Top Gear, with its new hosts, has been nothing short of a flop. People complained that the hosts just didn’t have the chemistry, the jokes didn’t land and it wasn’t as entertaining as it used to be.
In fact the average audience for the last series, fronted by Clarkson, was 6.49 million. This year’s series opener drew 6.42 million curious viewers, but the audience has shrunk to only 1.9 million by the series finale. Criticism of host Evans was so fierce that he in fact quit the show and will not return for its next season.
Look at those numbers however you like, that is irreparable damage to the brand, especially in a time when competition for audience attention is harder than ever.
Meanwhile, the Grand Tour recently launched, and has been a phenomenal success. Amazon won’t release viewing numbers, but says that the first episode of the Grand Tour broke their streaming records, and that “millions” of people had watched it in the first week. This, despite its huge budget of almost £160 million, makes it hit.
I’ve watched the Grand Tour, and can confirm it is exactly as good, ridiculous and funny as Top Gear was in its prime (no pun intended, Amazon).
So, what does this have to do with creativity?
The BBC hoped that viewers would remain loyal to Top Gear because they had built up such a brand behind it through Clarkson & Co over more than a decade.
And they thought that they could create a comparable, if not better, product without the people who had originally found the magic formula.
But as it turns out, you can have the best administrators and brand managers in the world, but unless you have the right people generating and executing new ideas, you won’t be able to reproduce your previous success.
You see, the BBC wanted to avoid the bad aspects of the previous Top Gear (offending a small minority of people) while keeping what people liked (challenges etc). In essence, they wanted a more controlled, well behaved, less risky team to produce the same magic that the renegades did previously, and hoped that the Top Gear brand would remain as strong as previously.
But what ended up happening is that this lower-risk strategy isn’t what the consumers wanted. They wanted the brash, childish and FUN content that the trio of buffoons could dream up.
And this is what the Grand Tour gave them again.
Clarkson & Co knew that in order to be successful, they didn’t need the Top Gear name at all. They needed to produce what people wanted (and there was enough budget to make it the way they wanted), and if the audience liked what they saw it would be a success.
Owning an idea isn’t as important as being able to produce new ideas
This is very similar to what happened to Walt Disney when he was first starting out.
Before creating Mickey Mouse, Disney’s first huge hit cartoon was a cartoon rabbit called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It was a smash hit, but the Intellectual Property was owned by Universal Studios, who tried to threaten Disney to produce the cartoon for lower costs or they would steal all their best animators.
But instead of bending to the might of the studio, Disney and his partner took a different route.
They realised that even though Universal owned Oswald, that didn’t mean that Disney couldn’t create a new character. After all, Universal just owned what Disney had previously produced, not what he would produce in the future if he went somewhere else.
So Disney left Universal, created Mickey Mouse amongst numerous other characters, and the rest is history. Now nobody remembers Oswald anymore,
Now nobody remembers Oswald anymore, because Universal didn’t know what to do with the IP once the people required to produce it had left.
What we can learn from all this
Companies struggle to innovate sometimes because they think that just because they have a current hit, that it will continue to be successful in the future.
Once they have a hit, they will also try to exploit it through investing in Sales & Marketing and by driving efficiency to reduce cost, rather than risking to change and grow the hit in case this might offend some people.
This often leads to frustrations from the people who created the hit in the first place, often eventually causing them to become disinterested and leave.
But once these people leave, it becomes much more difficult for the companies to continue the success into the future, as new ideas and innovations, both small changes to existing products and new products altogether, are required to grow the company in the future.
Hit products which barely change across generations (like the specific formula for Coca Cola) are the exception, not the norm.
This can also happen in other creative fields like music and film if an original creator is no longer involved, such as when David Lee Roth left Van Halen.
The way to address this is to realise that your “hits” will only ever be temporary. Instead of thinking they will last forever, you should always make sure you are investing time, effort and resources into building a number of new offerings.
Yes, some of them will be risky, most of them will not work, but some of them might, and those are the ones that will support you in the future.
And nobody just wants to be a tribute band, playing out the hits that a previous generation created.