Sold on sizzle

In the conference room of Mark Stevens’ offices at the palatial 800 Westchester Ave. in Rye Brook, there’s a painting of Marilyn Monroe.

“Everyone who met Marilyn was dazzled by her,” says the marketing guru. “It’s a metaphor for how you sell yourself. People don’t want to buy things they like. They want to buy things they love. You don’t buy things you can live without.”

For 18 years, Stevens has helped clients ranging from financial firms to pharmaceutical companies to nightclubs make the transition from like to love as CEO of MSCO. He’s had a lot of time to think about what makes an individual or a corporation a dazzling sell. His initial philosophy might be summed up in the song title “That’s Entertainment.”

Consider Las Vegas resorts developer Steve Wynn, he says. Wynn inherited bingo parlors from his father, who told him that they were not in the gambling business, but show business. Or onetime Bloomingdale’s head Marvin Traub, who thought of Bloomie’s not as a retail biz, but an entertainment one.

“So you say to me, ‘Well, we’re in the tire business. We’re not in show business,’” Stevens says. “But the employees’ uniforms can be clean. The sitting area can be attractive and you can serve coffee. When you have a website, you have to see change. We call this a touch-point map. Each point has to be fantastic.”
Don’t think for a moment, however, that Stevens is advocating mere cosmetic change.

“Forget ‘dress for success,’” he says. “The most important quality is curiosity, listening to others. You’re interesting, because you’re interested.”

Stevens remembers approaching former President Bill Clinton at a Chappaqua eatery a year and a half ago. Stevens asked if he could sit down and the two wound up chatting.

“He looks into your eyes,” Stevens says. “It’s not an act. He wants to know what you’re thinking. That’s dazzle. That’s the Marilyn Monroe effect.

“Most people come in with an agenda and go into the hard sell. …But the great salespeople never sell anything. The great salespeople say, ‘I’m going to see Joan Smith and find out how she sees the world.’ It’s a wonderful journey.”

Stevens helped the wealth management firm Clarfeld understand this, taking the company from the notion that it was a group of stock jocks to the idea of a collection of confidants. Indeed, its name is Clarfeld Wealth Strategists & Financial Confidantes.

“The confidant part is key. You ask yourself, ‘What’s the compelling story?’ That’s dazzle.”
Stevens learned about dazzle the hard way. He grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Queens, sharing a bedroom with his sister. His father was a Willie Loman type, “a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” as Arthur Miller wrote of Willie in “Death of a Salesman.”
A smart man, Stevens’ father became a salesman when he was forced financially to drop out of medical school.

“People loved him because he was gregarious, but he had no strategy for building wealth.”
He died when Stevens was 17, leaving the family $84 and no life insurance.
Growing up, Stevens would often go fly-fishing with his father in the Armonk-Bedford area. After, they’d stop in Bedford to buy a present for his mother, who was left out of these jaunts. It gave the young Stevens time to look around at the spacious Bedford homes with their baronial fireplaces.
“I saw another world, one of dazzle.”

At 7, he vowed he would one day live there. Some 10 years later, with his family facing poverty, he made another vow – to have the guts to face life head on and take risks.

So he began to build companies that he then sold for a profit. He started with a business column he sold to Newsday and other papers and eventually to Universal Press Syndicate. Another company, Synergy, helped to license accountants to sell financial products. Dissatisfaction with the marketing companies he hired inspired him to found MSCO and also write “Your Marketing Sucks,” one of several books.

In the early days of MSCO at 709 Westchester Ave., he burned the midnight oil. Recently, he sold “a significant stake” in the company, a move that allows him to remain CEO.

After he and wife, Carol Ann, raised sons Harly and Justin in Chappaqua, Stevens made good on his promise to move to Bedford. There he and Golden Retriever Sky like to sit by the family swimming pool, even in the dead of winter. You get the feeling that Stevens is still that kid from Queens who can’t quite believe he made good in Bedford.

Might he and Sky go fly-fishing one day? Perhaps. But for now, they’re content with Stevens’ pool, or rather, Sky’s.

“He thinks it’s his,” Stevens jokes, “and he just lets us use it.”

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