Ground Control to Major Tom–a song I just can’t call by its official name “Space Oddity” because the key line in the chorus is too melded into my brain–is an emotionally powerful articulation of a risk of working with any professional: they may get so absorbed into their work that they’ll just vanish into space… and love it so much, never return.
That is the story of the song. It opens with Ground Control telling Major Tom, about to fly up to space, to put his helmet on, and then congratulating him on how famous he’s become. He responds by talking about the bliss and perfection of being out of the misery of earth: “For here am I sitting in a tin can. Far above the world. Planet Earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do” and in fact, he loves that bliss so much that he continues “I think my spaceship knows which way to go. Tell my wife I love her very much”–that is, he’s just not coming back.
This is a perfect metaphor for one client relationship too many–with digital marketers, PPCs, and really any professional. They get so wrapped up in their work, loving it so much, they forget to “keep their feet on the ground.” And in the case of the song, the feet are literally floating around in space!
Examples I’ve seen:
Software developers get so into writing their app, and constantly improving and perfecting and improving more and perfecting more, and then again improving and perfecting more–that before you know it, months or years have gone by and the whole mission has tanked. In fact, I’ve experienced this happening with one software developer too many.
Writers get so into writing their words, and just loving their use of language and their puns and cleverness… that they completely forget the purpose of what they’re writing. (No, I’ve never done such a thing, why would you ever think that, no no no, how dare you, well, okay, maybe once in a blue moon I did, okay, maybe many times in many not-blue moons, but no, no, it’s different for me!).
And in fact, in lots of industries, particularly where there is a more “creative” bent by the traditional definitions of the word “creative.” The creative tend to, well, be creative and as such, tend to get so wrapped up in what they’re creating, that it’s particularly easy for them to lose the connection with reality.
And losing this connection with reality is one surefire way to tank a client project, in digital marketing or any industry. You need to always have your feed on the ground to understand what is happening.
So this uncovers one of the challenges of any serious professional relationship: how do you balance between wild creativity and the space you “out of the box” thinking you need, with always being close to the immediate and long-term needs of the client and very close to what he’s doing and what he needs. In a way, these are something like opposite skill sets. How do you get the best of worlds (to quote Van Halen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZ7ywrl5oMo ).
There are a few ways to reconcile these two, and I’ll share some of the approaches I personally prefer:
- You can divide them between different people. You have the account manager vs The Creative. Very different personality types. One could be right brain, one could be left brain.
- If you have both in one, both within yourself, then dedicate different parts of the day or week to each. As an example, I tend to use Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons for meetings and management time; but Mondays, Fridays, and all mornings for creative and focus time.
- Admit that you can’t be everything to everyone, and specialize in one of these.
- You can get away with crazy behavior… IF you’re that good. Why do divas act totally insane and yet people pay more and more to see them? Because they are just that good. With greater competence, comes greater acceptance of idiosyncrasies.
This brings us back to the ending of Major Tom:
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you he—
That is to say, Major Tom does the ultimate crazy creative mood: the vanishing act. He just stops responding to the incoming messages.
Yes, the software developers who disappeared on me have received many a “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” Type messages from me again and again.
When your mind is too up in the air, you can’t help but turn that into the most extreme version of that: not just going away, not just leaving your wife (tell her that I love her so!), but you just stop responding.
And he probably did it with a smirk on his face. Not in a particularly bad way (albeit unprofessional); just so absorbed in the mission, you literally don’t even think it’s important to do the basic human things, like responding to the pings of those trying to find you. (Sound like any intensely creative professional you know? You can probably make a list, like I can!).
So perhaps, a meta-lesson for client relationships is: gnothi seauton. Know thyself. If you’re at risk for getting so absorbed into the flow of doing awesome work–that in and of itself is a magic power, so few can!–then just implement specific measures, rituals, and rules in your own processes and work style, from whom you work with to when you and how you communicate, to avoid being the professional just floating away in space.
Unless, of course, all the miserable client horror stories make you want to escape this world, as they did to Major Tom. In that case, go for it!