Client management lessons I learned from Everybody wants to rule the world by Tears for Fears

This article was first published in Beloved by Clients, and you can read it here.

The famous name and chorus to Tears for Fears’ most classic song–Everybody Wants To Rule The World–feels like a lie to me: those who are ruling the world or close to ruling the world probably have the most miserable job on the planet. Imagine the painful decisions you make, your emotions and thus quick decisions leading instantly to thousands or millions dying, your reward for your service being the hatred of everyone on the planet or at least half of everyone, insurmountable pressure that makes you want to flee into a forest and escape from humanity. At least that’s how I would feel if I ruled the world, and it may or may not be the case that I may or may not have had some deep interactions with people who may or may not rule the world and they may or may not feel this way. (Enough qualifications for you there?)

But you know who definitely does want to rule the world? Every client under the sun, and every boss under the sun. Perhaps the song should have been titled, “Every Client Wants To Rule The World.” The Canonical Client–he pays you 10-cents and then thinks he has complete control over every minute of your life! Isn’t that ruling the world in a nanocosm of the world?

Indeed, the contrast between (my speculations on, because that’s all this is, speculations, right?) the attitude of those who rule the annoying clients want to rule this nanocosm of your world really reveals the complete and utter powerlessness of the annoying client: utterly unimportant in the scheme of things, so he overcompensates for it by trying to pretend to be much more powerful than he actually is. And this isn’t merely a “ha, ha” joke I’m trying to make: once we understand this, it becomes much easier to treat the client like the wounded dog they are, licking their own blood and only trying to recover their strength, than the otherworldly giants that a younger version of myself thought they were.

The power of the song to understand the client’s motivations doesn’t only come from the song’s title, but let’s examine some key lyrics, so sing along, everyone:

I can’t stand this indecision

Married with a lack of vision

Everybody wants to rule the world

What’s powerful about this triplet is that it identifies a problem endemic to client work. In fact, it’s hard for me to summarize it better than a problem I see in almost all clients than Tears for Fears’ words, which are worth repeating even just one paragraph after I wrote them out:

I can’t stand this indecision

Married with a lack of vision

As I copy-paste those words now, I already feel to myself: “I see myself quoting this explicitly in some situation that will come up within at least the next month.” 

There are two halves to the problems identified here:

“I can’t stand this indecision” identifies an observation about client work that is “funny because it’s true.” Decisiveness is almost a tautological definition of a leader. How come so many clients change their mind every ten seconds then?

The answer seems to be half “fear”–you’re running in this direction but what if it’s the wrong direction?–and half “shiny new object syndrome” (Ahh the cool kids are talking about this and that, we need to do that, too!). Answer: the only way to change that in a client is through the slow and painful process of maturation, which much more often than not is accompanied by deep failure. You need to let them fail for them to learn. The trick here is to let them fail, without it making you look bad. How do you do that? We’ll need many other song lyrics to dive into in order to analyze that part more carefully!

But this indecision almost always comes with another psychological challenge, not having a vision. It is “married with a lack of vision.” This is a useful framing but there is an interesting causal effect here: if you have a clear and strong vision… then it becomes easy to make decisions. So the lack of a vision leads to indecision. This actually then tells us the solution to the indecision problem: have a vision. But of course that is easier said than done. (And this is why religious beliefs are so useful–and I’m using “religious” in a broad way; Silicon Valley itself is something like a religion–because they give you the vision pre-made, so that it becomes much easier to make decisions.)

The next lines of the song continue being awesome:

Say that you’ll never never never never need it

One headline why believe it?

Everybody wants to rule the world

The “One headline why believe it?” line slammed in the middle there is worth concluding one. This is a powerful reminder to all marketers and indeed all clients, bosses, and humans: “One headline why believe it?”. Marketing at its heart is about sending lots of subtle signals to others–from the obvious headline to details so subtle they are nearly imperceptible to your consciousness–in order to help push some goal forward. As a result? Constant headlines and constant minor details and hints and clues non-stop, that may or may not correspond to any underlying reality. This has the effect of pushing populations to act in ways you need to (for a facile example, getting lots of people to buy a product from a brand they didn’t even know exists; for less facile examples, you have to use your creative imagination.) Be careful, very careful, of eating your own dog food.

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