Genius and Broadcast TV

I rarely watch TV these days, but when I do one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures is the CBS procedural Scorpion. It’s like the love child of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory, both of which I enjoy—less guiltily. Hey, what can I say? I’m a sucker for connection and in all of these shows the characters connect with each other in a wackily familial way that appeals to something deep within me.

Scorpion, as the Season 1 voiceover reminded us with every episode, is based on the life of a “real genius,” Walter O’Brien, who allegedly had the second-highest IQ ever recorded, or some such thing. (Hence the title of this post.)

What I didn’t know until I heard Walter O’Brien interviewed on the invaluable Tim Ferriss podcast is that O’Brien and his confederates at the real-life Scorpion consulting firm conceived of the show as a marketing tool. He figures once the show airs for a decade (it’s going into Season 3 in the fall), his company will be permanently embedded in its prospects’ minds. Try that, Ernst & Young. We’ll call this Option A, and it’s surely the first time anyone has attempted to use a fictional entertainment to market his company and recruit potential employees. Oh wait—unless you count The Apprentice.

Or perhaps (Option B) O’Brien’s bio is a load of, as they say in his native Ireland, malarkey—fluffed and air-brushed to make it look like something exceptional. In that case, the TV show burnishes an imaginary legend. (The comparisons to Donald Trump just keep coming.) It’s based on a lie. But isn’t all fiction?

Option A—O’Brien and company think out of the LinkedIn box to attract the highly specialized kinds of employees they will need as the company grows.  It’s brilliant marketing.

Option B—O’Brien has been dining out on some really good stories (apparently he actually has done high-level hacking work for legitimate clients) and he decides to cash them in for the biggest payday possible. It’s certainly not the path of least resistance, and there’s no guarantee any TV show will become a hit; even great ones fail to find an audience (I’m lookin’ at you, The Comeback). But if the show does catch on, O’Brien collects his executive producer fee, rakes in the bucks from international licensing (two seasons in and it’s already airing in 13 countries besides the U.S.), and establishes name recognition forever.

Also brilliant marketing? Maybe. But I’ve seen too many people get caught inflating their credentials. The climb toward the top may be fun, but the fall is never worth it. Perhaps there will be a Trump comparison to be made here too. Stay tuned.

 

Reputation outlives us all

The spousal unit watched the Minions movie while I was out of town, which reminded me of a blog I wrote after their screen debut in Despicable Me six years ago.

Aside from a few comic set pieces, I hated that movie. With my brain freed from worrying about the plot or characters, I found myself paying particular attention to the background details. And that led to this discussion of how a reputation can be ruined in an instant—no news there—but if it turns into enough of a pop culture moment, that reputation can stay ruined for a long, long time. Here’s what I had to say in 2010 (you can tell it’s a vintage piece because of the double space after every period):

The New York Times tells us that Wall Street is hiring again.  But don’t break out the party hats and $2,000 bottles of Champagne just yet.  Wall Street has a reputation problem: Most firms will ignore it, but the smart firms will acknowledge and address it.

Yes I know, I know – Wall Street has a reputation problem every five or six years.  This is probably the third such cycle I’ve lived through since I started working in financial services in the late ’80s.  Back then, the punchline was a survey on trustworthiness.  The good news, Wall Streeters were not the least trusted group in the nation; the bad news, they placed lower than the KKK.

How far has anti-Wall Street sentiment penetrated the public discourse in the current cycle?  I had occasion to sit through the animated feature Despicable Me this weekend (save yourselves – don’t do it) during which the evil genius, seeking to finance his dastardly plan, visits the bank to secure a loan.  Not surprisingly, the sign over the door read:

“Bank of Evil”

More surprising was the all-too-legible subhead:

“Formerly Known As Lehman Brothers”

Does it really matter what the movie-going public thinks?  Unlike consumer products companies, Wall Street firms believe they don’t need to curry favor widely.  After all, their business model doesn’t depend on millions of people buying a few dollars’ worth of products; it depends on a few people (investment managers) buying millions of dollars’ worth of products.

But there’s another constituency eyeing Wall Street: the government.  Elected officials – and the regulatory agencies they control – are extremely sensitive to popular sentiment.  As the country gears up for the political fisticuffs of a midterm election, you can expect to see financial services executives on the hot seat.

The best way to handle this onslaught of negative publicity?  Don’t fight it, roll with it.  If there was wrongdoing – or perceived wrongdoing – admit it.  That’s what I advised Bankers Trust CEO Charlie Sanford to do when some of his derivatives traders were in the spotlight, and The New York Times approved.  Then find something positive your firm does and talk it up.

Making money isn’t intrinsically evil. Without financial services firms, the world’s economy would grind to a screeching halt.  Someone needs to tell this story, honestly and compellingly.

Sorry to depress you on a beautiful Saturday. Cheer yourself up by watching the Minions movie. The spouse enjoyed it. Who knew?