How inevitable was it that we would analyze the original Rickrolling video here, to try to extract client management or marketing lessons from it? A song that had 6 milliseconds of fame once upon a time but that the Interwebs makes live on forever. And above that, the Interweb rewrites history to make it sound like the 80s and 90s were an era when this was the anthem you heard 24⁄7; don’t let the modern infatuation with the song make you think it was the defining song of the era of my childhood. (This is personal, yo!).
The oft-repeated chorus (at least oft-repeated when Rickrolling today, not when it came out!) has a message that every client wants to hear:
Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you
Who doesn’t want to hear that? Who doesn’t want someone they hire, no matter what price point it may be, to dedicate their lives to them? To pledge to never lie or hurt them? To never desert them? It’s the client’s dream! Indeed, from the client’s eyes, there’s no better song to capture what they want to hear from anyone they hire. PS: your boss thinks exactly the same about his employees.
Indeed, a younger version of myself, entrepreneurial since I was in diapers, seeing everything from the company’s eyes, the clients’ eyes, the boss’s eyes (I’ve been a boss since forever, for better or worse!), with my personal style of empathy that goes all-out to see it from the other’s eyes – I thought: of course! To my clients:
I’m never gonna desert you, never gonna hurt you, never gonna make you cry.
It’s taken far too long for me to realize something that many others – I’d guesstimate something like 95.6% of the US population – knows intuitively since they are in diapers, although they ever express it so directly and don’t even think it consciously (these are subconscious emotions I’m analyzing here!): loyalty is a two-way street, and to build loyalty in a relationship where there is a power disparity, the more powerful needs to first go all-out to show his commitment to the less powerful before the less-powerful shows his commitment back.
Let’s unpack that. This song is fundamentally about loyalty; in a sentence, the argument of the lyrics is that the lover, errrr, person being hired (consultant or employee, for example) will follow the company / boss / client to the grave. “Never, never, never,” is the key repeated word. And it’s hard to get clearer than, “Never gonna give you up.”
While this is an expectation that, while natural to the client or boss, is so unreasonable, I won’t even articulate the reasons why that is unreasonable, but instead, analyze a subtle implication: how do you build loyalty? Many people are loyal; many of the best people are very loyal. So the lyrics imply the question: how do you really build loyalty?
While the answer is complex and implied all across these series of essays as well as Beloved by Clients, but goes way beyond the scope of the book and these essays, one implication to these lyrics is key: in the client/boss relationship with the person whom he hires – you! – the power is fundamentally unequal. And that’s fine. As Ulysses reminds us (No, no that one; Shakespeare’s version),
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order
No relationship is ever precisely equal, and thus every relationship has a power dynamic. And in your relationship with your client/boss, usually, the client/boss is the one with substantially more power. He pays the bills, doesn’t he? (That’s why clients and bosses are able to get away with so much bad behavior!)
And having more power doesn’t buy loyalty. But having more power and then from there, demonstrating deep loyalty to those below you – that is what everyone else sees and builds their loyalty back to you.
In other words, we should flip the message of the song, from the client/boss to everyone he wants to work with: they’ll never give you up, they’ll never let you down, they’ll never hurt you. And once the client is doing that to you – consistently, across enough time – then it makes sense for you, the lesser power, to start being loyal back to Ye More Powerful.
There’s a subtle lesson hidden in here for marketers, as well: if you position your client (or yourself!) as too desperate, then you’ll become the butt of the Internet. Or at least the butt of the jokes of your clients.
In other words: it’s not a coincidence, I would posit that Rickrolling was born with this song. It’s mocking the notion of being too good, to over the top – even when not deserved. If you will be loyal to those who don’t deserve it, or you publicly imply that even if your marketing (no one would ever say that; it’s always an implication reading between the words chosen), then that’s when people will laugh at your client’s positioning… and then never hire them. Or you, for that matter.
Why is loyalty, when not earned, the butt of jokes and of the Internet? Because loyalty, when given where it hasn’t been earned, is the sign of, to put it not so bluntly, the loser. And people can smell it when you act that way and as such, they think you have to either be a loser… or you have to be lying – because if you’re not a loser, how could you be so loyal when the other side doesn’t deserve it or at least hasn’t earned it? So you must be lying, acting, pretending to be loyal when really you’ll betray them the moment you have the confidence and the timing is right. As such, unearned loyalty is the perfect subject to be the butt of all jokes. Your god doesn’t need to earn your loyalty; he’s your god (whether you use that word or not for him.) Your parents and close family don’t need to earn your loyalty because they’re your parents and close family. But for everyone else, your loyalty is so precious that it should only be rewarded to those who have earned it and are continuing to earn it by being loyal to you. And that’s one component of avoiding loserdom (and I would know, having been a loser for most of my life, possibly still being one, depending on whom you ask!)