Client management lessons I learned from It’s the end of the world as we know it by REM

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

We all know the experience, having lived through it many times (and lost our hair or even worse, our sanity, each time): the client project that blows up. Maybe due to your fault or your team’s fault, but more often than not, for reasons that have nothing to do with you. (You’re perfect so how could it ever be your fault?).

And when the project blows up, the client blows up with it. Maybe it takes the form of screaming. Maybe threats. Maybe ghosting you at the most critical moment. Maybe just eerie quietness.

And what song captures that better than the REM anthem, whose chorus repeats:

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Oh no, the server collapsed just as we got onto Reddit–it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Oh no, on a huge account, all our ads sent all the traffic to a broken page–it’s the end of the world as we know it.

Oh no, just as our new ad campaign launched–major typo resulting in embarrassingly and public humiliation–it’s the end of the world as we know it.

But Michael Stipe concludes the chorus with the wise:

…And I feel fine.

And those four words are the key Stoic insight to deal with the stress of marketing or any high-level, professional job. As the world comes down around you, you need to feel fine, so that you can face the problem–and solve it. When you run away and hide, it makes problem-solving near impossible.

Indeed, this is one of the secrets of mastering marketing, client relationships and–perhaps, just perhaps–life itself. As the world is blowing up in front of you, staying calm, clear headed and focused and so that you can solve the problems and plough on ahead.

This is fundamentally an emotional and psychological challenge. But in school, when they taught you the technical skills they told you you needed to do the work? Well, they left out the most important parts: being able to function, and function well, under the most stressful conditions imaginable, because all serious client work is soul-destroying-levels of stress. You need to be able to have your soul crushed and stamped on and spat on, and throughout the process, smile and sing, or at least hum, “I feel fine.”

The wisdom of the song shows itself not only in the chorus, but in the opening lines as well:

That’s great, it starts with an earthquake

These opening lines are perfect as well. The “earthquake” is the perfect metaphor to describe the client disasters that happen time after time. But there’s a good insight here: this is how it starts. It’s uncommon to have a project that is going perfectly and then The Nuclear Bomb happens out of the blue. There are always–always–warning signs, red flags, yellow flags, alerting you to what will happen in the future. Every. Single. Time.

But you didn’t see any, you protest? Ah-ha! That doesn’t mean they weren’t there; it just means that you’re not yet experienced enough in identifying the warning signs. How to identify the warning signs? There happens to be a whole podcast dedicated to that question!

And to make the opening even better–we’re going backwards, from the “with an earthquake” to “it starts with” to “That’s great”–is the opening two words: “That’s great!” You can judge any work by its first word, and the “That’s great” implies a bunch of on-point observations:

  • You need to accept the earthquakes will happen in client work, it’s just a part of life like the rain outside is–and “that’s great” is the ultimate acceptance, not only accepting it but framing it as a positive thing.
  • There’s a touch of irony or is it sarcasm in the “that’s great.” And the irony-or-sarcasm adds another level to it: yeah, it implies, we wish the world were different, but alas, it’s not.
  • Viewed from the outside, disasters can be interesting, learning experiences, opportunities to grow in every way–a challenge for builders to make stronger buildings, and governments to enforce better behavior, and so forth. So it’s the ultimate removal of yourself that you need to do, in order to maintain the needed professional distance.

That’s great, indeed. The next line continues with “birds and snakes,” animals long suspected of being able to predict when an earthquake is about to happen. So perhaps the real lesson here is that one ought to be a bit more reptilian, if the reptiles indeed have access to the Knowledge of the future before non-reptiles do. Maybe reptilian aliens do indeed run the world.

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