In the face of evil…

In a 2005 concert recording of U2’s lovely ballad, Miss Sarajevo Bono prefaces the number by offering a prayer to victims of a then-recent terrorist bombing in London. The prayer (paraphrasing) is that “we don’t become a monster to slay a monster.” What he was suggesting, I think, is that the US and UK resist warfare to deal with the terrorists.

I think about that prayer. Granted, not in the noble context Bono gave it but in an everyday sort of way. It’s a big idea for a prayer and I don’t mean to belittle it but sometimes I think about those words in terms of relating to difficult people or circumstances, sort of like praying for your enemies.

On that note, I’d like to reflect on one the most difficult clients I have ever encountered. I won’t name them. They are dead to me now. For the sake of this piece think of them as the worst client you have ever faced. See if you can relate…

To creating endless versions of copy only to be rejected, redirected and even insulted for ineptitude.

To egregious meeting times that are completely indifferent to your schedule or any reasonable schedule.

To having quality people burned up, sometimes quitting or (almost a mercy) being asked off the business.

To compromising one’s principles in a futile attempt to meet so many impossible demands.

To helplessly watching as an entire team loses all hope that anything they do will ever get bought, let alone made.

To the realization that even if something were produced it would only be CRAP.

To getting to the point where even black humor has lost its power.

To enduring brutal closed-door meetings about a failing relationship and inevitably bleaker outcomes.

And yes, because it matters: to not getting paid.

God forbid if this sounds familiar. Your client has become a foe. They will fire you. Their passive aggression can have no other outcome. Yet, other than put up with abuse and keep on keeping on, what does an agency do in the meantime? What can it do?

For most of us resigning business –no matter the circumstances- will have negative repercussions on the numbers, on staffing, on perceptions in the marketplace. The client is a bird in the hand even if it is a vulture. Deeper down, perhaps, resignation is an admission of failure. Whatever the reason, letting business go never seems like an option. In all my years, I have never been part of an agency that has resigned a client… even the one I allude to above.

So the prayer for the “meantime” is that we don’t become a monster.

That means holding on to one’s culture and, if at all possible, one’s people. It means resisting punishing those who had the thankless task of tending to the beast. We don’t point fingers. We won’t lash out at our fellows or take ugliness home to our families. In short, we do not become the monster.

Exile and bliss. I can relate…

listening to music while pushing through a run this weekend my iPod Shuffle selected “Disappearing Act” by U2. Instantly, my heart soared. My runner’s aches vanished. I got a second wind. At that glorious moment, I knew I’d finish my workout strong. Such is the power of music.

I also realized that this particular U2 song might just be my favorite from the band’s entire, vast catalog. Given U2 is my favorite musical group (if a grown man can have a favorite musical group), choosing above all others a non-hit like “Disappearing Act” seems pretty random. Especially considering the following bit of history from U2’s guitarist, The Edge:

“‘Disappearing Act,’ formerly known as ‘White City,’ was recorded at the beginning of the Slane sessions (for The Unforgettable Fire)…but for whatever reason, it never inspired a compelling vocal…then, after 25 years, between shows on the 360 tour, ‘White City’ was completed and became ‘Disappearing Act.’”

Yikes. Perhaps my favorite U2 song almost never got made. Regardless, it’s an amazing number. Listen to it. “Disappearing Act” is both a soaring anthem and a deeply personal work, indicative of the very best U2 songs. It has all the elements: inspiring guitar hooks, beautiful chorus and Bono’s classically enigmatic lyrics that seem to be simultaneously about mysterious women and the eternal quest for truth, beauty and a higher power.

Say what you will about Bono yet the fact he rarely writes about sex, drugs and rock and roll (not that there’s anything wrong with that) is one of the band’s greatest virtues. Since Day 1 U2 has remained unabashedly spiritual, never forsaking their faith for rampant hedonism readily available to rock stars fractionally as famous as they are. I find that truly amazing.

But it’s the personal connection I make with this song that, for me, puts it above their many terrific others. As a lifelong introvert and someone who has never mastered social intercourse, I’ve done my share of disappearing acts. It’s painful. It’s regretful…


“Exile, it’s a small price to pay for bliss.” A haunting line, containing two seemingly disparate ideas (exile and bliss) and it nails me to a cross. For all my blessings of family and friends, I often find myself alone. Indeed, I put myself there, preferring it to the company of others…

“When there’s only one thing you need to own…hunger, hunger itself.”

I view “hunger” as a search for reconciliation as well as a description of the ambition and creativity that can restore me to sanity. Or at least get me out of the “graveyard before I turn to bones.”

With “all the lepers (I) let in my head” sometimes I wonder how I “can love” at all. The song keeps asking that question. And if I’m being honest so do I.

Even though Bono wrote “Disappearing Act” in the second person I obviously take it personally. I love this song even as I struggle liking myself. And isn’t that what true art (be it a novel or a pop song) truly does: point to our flawed humanity while providing eternal hope for its salvation?

Writer’s note: I may have crossed the line here, providing “too much information.” Forgive me that indulgence. Yet, finding meaning in popular culture is absolutely part of this blog’s modest legacy. Thank you for your patience. Below is “Disappearing Act”

Found plate in the parking lot, Anaheim.

If you’re my FB friend or follow me on Twitter you know I just saw the U2 concert in Anaheim. “Saw” seems like too small a verb; witnessed was more like it.

I hadn’t planned on devoting blog space to the show but the concert was centerpiece to my weekend. My ears are still ringing. So, in as few lines as possible, here are my impressions:

The group delivered a solid and at times even spectacular show. Over the course of a two-hour concert, U2 played most of their hits, including “Pride (In the name of Love)” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” “Beautiful Day” and so on. And they did so with gusto –no “phoning in” the material. Yet, my favorite moments (by far) were when U2 played two songs from their Zooropa album, in particular the title track, which I frickin’ adore. For that number, the band pretty much surrounded itself in the stage’s elaborate technology, playing through a mosaic of shiny metal screens. It was pretty damn cool.

Dazzling… but far from intimate.

Still, as amazing as the “Claw” or “Spaceship” or whatever the hell they’re calling the contraption they play in is, I sincerely hope the band abandons it next time around. In the end it’s all too much. I want U2 to go back to concert halls and maybe even consider playing some theaters or nightclubs, the way the Stones did a few years ago.

Like most things social, good music is first and foremost about making a connection. If you’re sitting in a modern stadium it’s not easy. Yes, you get the spectacle but true emotions are harder to come by –even from a band that’s known for them.

Echoing the irony of U2’s lovely ballad, “Stay (Far away, So Close)” I found myself too far away to fully appreciate the song’s power. I literally had to shut my eyes to get closer to the music.

In the end it’s just four guys from Dublin…

Fortunately, for this show I had general admission tickets and a pass to the “inner ring,” so, at times, we were just yards from the performers. During these moments, Bono and the Edge literally walked right over us. Seeing a singer’s mouth actually moving and the guitarist’s fingers plucking and strumming makes a difference.

Despite the show’s magnitude, the band managed a few personal touches. It was longtime manager, Paul McGuinness’ 60th birthday and so he was brought on the stage while Bono led the whole stadium in singing Happy Birthday. Heartfelt and sincere, the intimate gesture was instantly magnified by the colossal setting. Lord knows Bono knows how to create such moments.

But it’s the music I like most about the band. I’ve said it before: U2 doesn’t write or sing about sex, drugs and the lifestyle. Despite being rock gods the band makes music on more important matters, like God Himself, Truth and Beauty, Pain and Wisdom, and of course Love. Case in point: “Magnificent” is an ode to God not a piece of ass. Motley Crue they are not. Say what you will about Bono, he and his mates aspire to the best in all of us.

Do you feel it?

Once again, this morning I had the privilege of riding my bike to work along Chicago’s glorious lakefront. Temperature in the high 60’s, not a cloud in the sky, and the wind at my back, I could not have asked for a better day -not just to ride in but to be alive. The moment was especially poignant given how few such days likely remain for us in the Windy City. Winter looms with its sub-zero temps and interminable gray skies.

But not today! This morning rocked.

Speaking of rock, I want to write about another key ingredient embellishing my morning commute: music. This morning a pod of classic Yes songs enhanced my ride on the sparkling lakefront. For those unawares, Yes was (and still kind of is) a signature prog-rock band from the 70’s. You would know them from their signature hits, “I’ve seen all Good People” and “Roundabout.” But if you were a pot smoking, nerdy white kid you knew their catalogue far more intimately.


While listening to Yes’s \"Siberian Khatru\" I had a vivid recollection of a moment in time: a Saturday morning at my best friend’s college apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. I see the sun streaming in through dusty windows. I feel the scintillating buzz from Cooper’s ubiquitous stash of Hawaiian Sinsemilla. I hear the crackling pops of a diamond needle on vinyl registering over Coop’s exquisite Pioneer stereo…The memory in indelible; I have it every time I listen to Yes.

That got me thinking about other such music-induced memories and how vivid they can be. For instance, I cannot listen to U2’s popular 2004 release, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” without thinking of the week I spent in Helsinki pitching the Nokia business. We were staying at a small hotel and, as I am a runner, the concierge directed me to a public gymnasium nearby. (That far north the nights lasted forever and so it was too dark to run outside.) Thus I remember jogging on a treadmill in an empty and darkened gym in Helsinki and listening to U2’s new album. I do not fully understand the correlation between that record and that location but I do know I cannot separate the two.

Likewise, whenever I hear Boston’s symphonic “More than a Feeling” I am immediately transported back in time to the now-defunct Rainbo ice-skating arena in Chicago. It was there I kissed my first girl, a curly-haired blond named Kathy. Saturday night comprised skating around in circles, more or less to the din of top 40 over the arena’s faulty sound system. Occasionally, they’d dim the lights for a ‘couples skate’…I close my eyes and I slipped away… Can’t you hear it? I can.

Author’s note: “Crazy on You” by Heart also takes me here…and to second base!

Advertisers have long known music’s magical power, which is why music is such a critical part of so many campaigns. For better or worse, if a tune transports someone to a brand and makes an indelible connection that’s kismet: whenever we hear the music we feel the brand. I’ve written about music and marketing before, in particular the love/hate relationship we have with jingles..

Let’s have some fun. Is there a piece of music that takes you to a specific time and place? I told you three of mine. Can you share some of yours?

My last post was about U2’s 360 Tour, which I generally liked despite having serious issues with Soldier Field. Among numerous comments I received, one stood out for its indictments. Migrane66 wrote the following:

…I suddenly understood why Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He looked at his future and saw something like soldier field this weekend: banners reading “Blackberry loves Nirvana”, a huge, dumb stage that was there to take to the focus off the average musicianship emanating from said stage, and a group of musicians who have become mere props in a corporate money grab…

Though I disagree with the writer’s bleak positions, his or her letter got me thinking. (No small feat!) Are not fan disappointment and the band’s success codependent? U2 became hugely popular and now the population holds it against them.

This ironic phenomenon is not limited to bands. Frankly, it applies to many people, places and things. Because of their success the New England Patriots went from unexpected darlings to annoying juggernaut. Now that everyone loves your favorite restaurant you hate going there.

Advertisers should pay special attention. All brands want to get big. But the smart ones worry about it as well. When I worked on Altoids, we rightfully worried that our success would ultimately come back to haunt us. Whenever someone suggested we “merchandise the brand” my spider sense began tingling. New flavors I could accept but Altoids mouth wash? Not on my watch. The key to maintaining Altoids’ cult-like status relied on keeping things under the radar –in brand management and advertising. That was one of the reasons we never did TV.

Has Altoids gone too far? What about Starbucks, Apple or Nike?

Everyone lusts for growth, especially in business. If one isn’t growing their business, one is considered failing. Yet, all around us are age-old examples of people, places and things growing too big or jumping the shark. Hence the above emailer’s brutal review of U2.

Our own industry is hardly immune. Pat Fallon and Jay Chiat both asked, “how big can we get before we get bad?” They got big. One can debate whether they got bad.

The great irony remains. When David slays Goliath we cheer. When David becomes Goliath we jeer. Word of warning to challenger brands: be careful what you wish for.

Finally, GROWTH is not always synonymous with EXCELLENCE. Take cancer for instance.

Help me grow on Twitter!


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