This began as a strange story. And it got stranger as time passed. Or perhaps we’ve been away so long that we’re just strangers in the strange land of consulting.
In March, the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit’s near-empty inbox suddenly overflowed with a raft of messages alerting us to a weird phenomenon sweeping across Europe. An email with a link to a KPMG Consulting song from the firm’s German corporate Web site was spreading like wildfire through offices around the globe. Recipients in adjoining cubicles began playing the song in stereo.
Intrigued by the song’s popularity, we wondered if it was a spoof or if it was a sincere effort to capture the firm’s spirit in audio. Perhaps KPMGers were eating their own dog food about 360-degree branding.
We sang. We laughed. We vowed to get to the bottom of things.
As it turns out, the firm commissioned a Frankfurt musician-songwriter to write a perky ditty for the annual consultants’ conference in 1999. Consultants from Germany and several other European countries were scheduled to attend. Drawing on his classical and jazz background, the composer, Tom Schlueter, had already written jingles for other companies. His KPMG challenge: to craft the right sound for a firm whose nebulous mission furrows the brows of even the brightest college grads.
“The song needed to balance between being not too hero-like, not too fast, not too smooth — not extreme in any direction — to stay true to the KPMG identity,” Schlueter says, apologizing for some misplaced prepositions as he translates from German to English.
The resulting jingle’s rousing chorus: “KPMG — a team of power and energy. We go for the gold. Together we hold to a vision of global strategy.”
Hendrik Ansink, COO of KPMG Consulting AG in Germany, told Schlueter that his song hit the highest note. “[The lyrics] could have been my own words,” wrote Ansink.
We knew that our untrained ears were missing something. To us, the anthem sounded like equal parts Family Ties theme song and Olympian flair. We also thought that it was pretty extreme for KPMG to hire a composer for an internal song. The audience members were consultants after all, not the A&R team at Sony Music. Or were they?
In 1998, consulting firms Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand commissioned a song to celebrate the recent merger that created Pricewaterhouse Coopers. That brainchild emerged from Meint Waterlander, a spokesman for PWC Holland’s board of directors. The firm also approached a popular artist to tackle that assignment.
Ruud Mulder, former guitarist for the Dutch funk/disco band Spargo, created “Your World/Our People,” a decidedly anti-funk, male-female duet. Waterlander armed Mulder, who speaks impeccable English, with the “Your World” slogan and a couple of English phrases containing corporate-speak like “no more frontiers.” Such “bullshit lines,” as Mulder describes them, were really “unpoetic.”
A particularly precious verse: “We don’t sell no dogma. All we’ve got is skill. Doing each and every client’s will.”
The goal of the PWC song? “Team spirit,” according to a proud Dutch PWC spokesman. The anthem even greeted callers on hold at the PWC switchboard. At the merger party, PWC staffers weren’t required to sing the tune, just to listen and marvel. Mulder hired singers to belt out the melody at the party. Thanks to a CD single distributed to 10,000 consultants, spirited employees could sing along years after the event.
A PWC consultant in Spain offered some unsolicited feedback: “Instead of trying to lift our morale with song, they should pay for us to go on a trip to the Bahamas.” Consultants from both PWC and KPMG voiced equally constructive suggestions. But by and large, they declined to be named.
And then, to our disbelief, this obscure little internecine musical skirmish got even stranger.
In March, Chris Raettig started a Web site devoted to corporate boosterism. Raettig, a 22-year-old technical strategist for Pumpernickle, a London-based digital-design studio, entertains visitors with a list of, and audio files for, some 18 songs. The site showcases a global trend, with older songs from the U.S. divisions of General Electric and IBM as well as newer tunes from software startups and Sweden’s Ericsson.
When word got out, the corporate anthems site attracted 10,000 visitors a day. Consultants from KPMG and PWC flooded the message boards, anonymously expressing embarrassment. Some cringed at the songs’ very existence. Others lamented the high corniness factor.
But when KPMG’s anthem hit number one on the Web site’s hit parade, PWC consultants voiced dismay at the mere number-three status of “Your World.” Nothing like competition to rally the troops around the weakest of ideas. In a sudden burst of corporate pride, the PWC team started an international lobbying campaign to oust KPMG’s strategy song from the top spot, Raettig says.
And then the whole business got scary. The KPMG song took on a life of its own. Visitors started downloading the KPMG song and remixing it to beats far less earnest than the arms-clasped rendition that Schlueter directed. Think Barney meets Metallica.
Dan(iel) Burzynski, head of technology at UpMyStreet, a London-based real-estate service, remixed the song in an hour on a Friday afternoon.
“It was too funny not to,” he says. “KPMG seemed to take itself just a little bit too seriously. I’ve worked with people from the firm, and they seemed to be either people who could take a joke or hardcore businesspeople. I wanted to cheer up the geezers and take the piss out of the suit wearers!”
Burzynski opted for a jungle edge, but he has competition from a hard-rock mix and a “Teutonic” mix — not to mention the version for a Nokia ring tone.
KPMGers around the world started secretly playing the song at their desks and rewriting lyrics. A mortified New Zealand KPMG consultant, who declined to be identified, revised the lyrics to read: “KPMG — Living a life of mediocrity/inanity.”
Suddenly all this absurdity began to feel normal. Life, even in consulting, imitates art. Charts, fans, downloads, remixes, Weird Al Yankovic-esque spoofs.
Earnest kitsch becomes camp, morphs to ironic, and transmogrifies to cool. This year’s KPMG consultants’ conference will feature a reprise of the strategy song. More than 3,000 consultants from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland will attend the meeting. Imagine them linked, arm in arm. Can Total Request Live be far behind?
Sidebar: Billboard or Bust
Beware, Britney! Watch out, ‘N Sync! The CDU rates chart-topping hits from KPMG and PWC. Visit the following audio links, hosted by http://www.corporateanthems.raettig.org
Our Vision of Global Strategy (Original version)
The best of the ’80’s, ’90s, and today. Listen for this aspirational refrain on your local lite-rock station — or as the closing number in the next Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
KPMG Jungle Mix
Consultants on ecstasy will get jiggy with this blend of ska, reggae, and techno.
KPMG Hard-Rock Mix
Think Bon Jovi meets the Heaven’s Gate cult. This inconsistent version starts off slow but builds to crescendo of sampled guitar riffs from Guns ‘n’ Roses, AC/DC, and the Clash. A headbanger’s ball? Perhaps not.
KPMG Teutonic Mix
This industrial-metal version fails to inspire PowerPoint greatness with its clashing cymbals, Rammstein-inspired chants, and Nordic-parade-march tempo.
It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll — and a lot cheese. This rival ditty aims for a grand finish but misses the mark with its melody — a pale comparison to KMPG’s toe-tapper. Prepare to flick your Zippo open and sway back and forth uncontrollably.
For more musical lunacy, see Raettig’s corporate anthems site.