Everyone knows Bernie Madoff is a putrid excuse for a human being.
But as we are hurling verbal stones at him, we should stop and see that what he did and how he did it, is ingenious.
More than anything else, Madoff was a marketing whiz. He wasn’t a financial engineer, he was a mastermind of perception.
And deception. And manipulation.
Of course, I am not advocating that we imitate the bastard, but there are interesting insights and epiphanies that we can gain from his modus operandi, and, if put in the hands of reputable and ethical business people, can work magic.
Consider the key components of Madoff Marketing:
- Never sell anything. Let other people do the selling for you. When that happens, you appear to be above commerce, a great man, who has no need for anyone to give him anything. People swoon over that kind of apparent independence.
- Don’t position your business as a business: hold it out as a club. Furthermore, a club that is closed to new members. If it makes an exception and finds the goodness to let you in, you will be forever grateful.
While Morgan Stanley was delighted to land fat cats as clients, fat cats were exhilerated that Madoff let them join his club.
(I first witnessed this kind of phenomenon at Studio 54. The once white hot New York disco insulted most of the people who waited on line for hours to get in, and the ruder they were, the longer the lines snaked around the city streets.).
- Establish a credential, let a disciple embellish it and let it take on an aura of its own without the main attraction–in this case Bernie the Swindler– not saying a word.
Madoff knew that other people can do a much better job of bragging about you than you can do on your own. Bernie built a network of a thousand third party endorsements. All he had to do was sit back, feign indifference and watch the machine do its magic.
- Aristotle Onassis once said to always have a tan, always borrow money and always pay it back on time. Madoff never borrowed, he stole, and of course he paid back just enough to keep his scam going.
But there is a part of the Onassis success plan Madoff understood: the tan. The aura of success. The importance of looking like a billion bucks. Bernie knew that success, or in his case the appearance thereof, draws crowds to you for the priviledge of touching your holy cloth.
They want a bit of the spoils to rub off on them.
In the classic film, “Being There,” Peter Sellers plays an ignorant gardner who is deemed to be a genius. Someone starts the myth, others swear to it, Sellers never says a word because he is oblivious to it all. The village idiot winds up in the Pantheon of greatness because the legions who want to believe, to believe in gods and icons and the kind of “greatness” that never visibly promotes itself, cannot be stopped from knighting him.
Madoff understood this strange alchemy. He brewed it all the way to a small cell and ultimately, a first row seat in hell.
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