If there is a song that ought to be the anthem of any serious professional, especially in the marketing industry – although likely members of any profession would argue it ought to be their anthem – it would be Queen & David Bowie’s Under Pressure.
Does not being under pressure define the work and the life of one who professes, well, anything with all his heart? And if it isn’t with all your heart, then you’re really not professing, right? Or anyone who has reached the upper echelons of any career, save a handful of lucky ones whose existence I still don’t fully believe in?
Indeed, when I look to work with or hire anyone, in addition to looking for competence in the role at hand, one of the key factors I look for is their ability to work under pressure. Because the pressure is there, and it mounts and mounts, and every once in a while, it explodes over the top. And in many roles, that “every once in a while” is really, “all the time.”
So the song opens perfectly, “Pressure: pushing down on me.” That’s how you feel every day, day after day, in any role past the beginning levels. Deep and intense pressure. And it never stops.
But then Freddie Mercury continues, “Pushing down on you.” That’s an important point, too: you’re not alone in this. You’re not the only one. It’s not like you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders while those on your team (or perhaps the opposing team) are hanging out on the beach. Nope, they’re feeling it, too.
And this is the pressure indeed: it can burn a building down, split a family in two, put people on the streets, to use Mercury’s examples almost verbatim in the next lines. It can even kill you. I’ve seen more than one person die in the line of what you would think would be mundane work. But it gets to you, it gets to everyone.
As the music crescendos, Mercury then sings powerfully, about this pressure, “That’s the terror of knowing what the world is about.” Now that is a powerful, deep, subtle – not obvious at all – line if I’ve ever heard one. Out of the bounds of this essay or really any essay I or any mere mortal human can put into writing is the question of how our civilization and planet is actually run and what it actually is – and even thinking about it a bit, you very quickly come to conclusions that could potentially fill you with terror. (Do you want to know? Are you sure? Well, even if you do, it’s a good thing that, if you have to ask that question, then no one you know will tell you the answer.)
But what’s powerful here about Mercury’s line – actually, I think it may be Bowie singing that line in the classic duo performance – is that we can constrain “the world” to “your business” or “your industry” and the same terror actually applies. As above, so below: your business is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the world. What’s really happening? How are the winners and losers determined in your industry, say marketing but likely any other non-tiny industry. Is the free market operating as you were taught? Do you take out ads and they just get more clicks and conversions and sales you make your clients wealthy and yourself in the process? Are the ad buyers buying the ads for the reasons you think they are? Have you seen lots of random and inexplicable results on your data dashboards and perhaps even sales from your campaigns that no amount of data or your analysis could explain? Are the clicks from humans or bots as you think they are or maybe numbers Google is changing on your dashboard? Is the acquisition of this company or that one happening because of business synergies or for other purposes? What’s being said that you don’t have access to hearing? What’s being written that you don’t have access to reading? What’s being winked that you don’t have the ability to interpret correctly, and even if you did, you would never be in the room to be able to do that interpretation? And, above all, if it weren’t working the way you were taught it works, is there any path for you ever having known or been told that?
What I’m getting at is: your industry, marketing or otherwise, is actually likely full of terrors for you. And the result of that? It takes that little dose of pressure and turns it into heaps!
Mercury then chimes back in more optimistically, in response to this terror, “Tomorrow gets me higher” – ah, a shot of some optimism above this terror. Paraphrase, we get high – in the positive sense, full of energy, let’s go higher up, to get to the top, running at top speed we’re so excited! – thinking of what we can do to improve and fix things, thinking of tomorrow. Optimism is only a good thing, so long as it’s sufficiently realistic, I appreciate the attitude.
Mercury then chimes on, after iterating a bit on these things and hinting at the finale to come in a bit, “Insanity laughs under pressure.” That’s a great line, because the intense pressure at the top of the marketing, or any other industry, will make you a bit crazy. (Do you think I was always like this? I was once upon a time at least slightly closer to being sane! Or perhaps I just didn’t have the confidence to show my insanity then?). And when there’s so much pressure leading to your insanity, what’s the best response? Mercury perfectly nails is: laughter. It’s one of the few weapons that have been granted to our species.
But Mercury really wants to be optimistic, so he then asks, “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love that one more chance? Why can’t we give love give love give love…” With the famous “give love” repeating in one of the song’s key crescendos.
That’s an interesting concept Mercury’s proposing here: that perhaps the solution is “love”? I won’t comment on that approach on the global scale (hint: that’s what we’re taught that Jesus tried to use to fix it, and how’d that turn out? I’m not one to judge that outcome yet!). But what about in the business and marketing worlds?
Here, I’d add that, I actually agree with and support – perhaps surprisingly – Mercury’s implication. We do need a bit more love. When our careers and jobs and day to day grind is driven by the numbers and customer satisfaction and profit margins and fear we’ll lose our jobs and angry clients and just generally shitting situations and shitty people and shitty everything you need to deal with… our humanity is taken out of it, and with that, our love is. Indeed, my favorite companies out there exude love. You can tell the team loves what they do. “Exude” is the right word.
And this brings us to a great marketing lesson. One of the best marketing approaches is to actually exude the love – and show it to the world. Lately, I’ve been playing with Basecamp, and you can feel that the product exudes the love of their team. From every product design detail to every word they use in their apps to web articles on their site to every video they do. They love what they do and It Shows. And notably, they have a very very tiny core team – probably because that love just can’t scale.
But why aren’t more people solving this problem of confronting the terror of the world with love, the problem Mercury sets forth here?
Well, Bowie then chimes in to answer the question, building up to the song’s famous ending:
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word,
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night,
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.
This is our last dance.
This is our last dance.
This is ourselves.
In other words, people and teams don’t exude love because it’s hard to do. There was once upon a time, apparently, when it was easier (it’s such an “old-fashioned word,” in Bowie’s words). It’s a word that “dares you” to do things that people just don’t do today. If something comes easily, it’s not love; it’s obviousness. (Donating $1 in spare change to someone who needs it isn’t showing him love; but donating every last penny of yours is – not that I’m recommending that, it’s just an example showing that it’s only love when you do the difficult thing for it.)
And this love dares you not just to do something that’s hard, but Bowie argues here, to change your “way of caring about yourself.” In a business context, I would say this is a powerful point for managing clients, bosses, employees, and anyone: no matter who it is, up or down in the hierarchy, you need to care for THEM FIRST. Put their needs first. Treat your employees like they’re the boss. Treat your clients like they’re the king. When you sacrifice yourself, to them, it’s hard: you make less money (hey, I could pay so-and-so half as much, and thus I’d be richer! Hey, I could build that software for that client in a quicker, cheaper, crappier way, he’ll never notice until the server crashes when I’m looong gone and won’t even blame me but his devops sysadmins instead!). But it’s hard to make less, to work more, and put those before you first. But my argument here is that Bowie’s position is right, because it pays off – in the long term.
But not only does it pay off in the long-term, but more powerfully than that, Bowie ends the song building up to: “This is our last dance.” Because this is our only shot. You’re building this team, this marketing department, this initiative today. And who knows where you’ll be tomorrow. Maybe not with these people, maybe not on this team. You may not even be alive. Maybe you’ll be dead or perhaps your soul is flying full of happiness and some voice in the sky telling you your destiny (as happened to my scientist, materialist, non-religious friend Javier, who died on the operating table during surgery and then was brought back a minute later.) You just never know. So treat this dance as though, This Is Your Last Dance. Because that’s who you are, This Is Ourselves. Can you even read those words now without humming them to the tune of the song? I can’t.