Dance of the Tchotchkes

You ever see Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice?  No, not the modern Nic Cage version. (which lost about $100 million in the box office, btw)

Fantasia; I was screening it for my kids. You remember the classic story– about how a little magic is great if you know how to control it, but in the wrong hands {insert- Mickey Mouse shenanigans}, it turns into a real mess. Sound familiar?

Classic Disney. A beautiful marriage of music & movie, a true love affair played out on the screen. And, the story also happens to describe better than any other, my view of tchotchkes.

Small gifts. Freebies. You know. Who doesn’t love that stuff?

The word alone brings instant upward momentum to the edges of my lips. A stimulus package of awesome.

Free t-shirt? Sure. And sign me up for that credit card. Heck, I’ll take two. Frisbee? Dude, you had me at hello.

The whole art & industry fascinates me. Think about the hundreds of thousands of people involved with making that totally handy keychain laser pointer. Or embossing your golf balls. And the oil used to manufacture and ship this stuff– oh, the oil.

All of that creative energy & leadership– dedicated to the short, disposable, ‘free’ life of the tchotchke; to the tune of $16 billion a year. Yep. And that’s just convention & conference crap. Can you imagine if we included happy meals & credit card sign ups? It’s big business.

But it also makes me wonder why on earth we do this to ourselves. Especially on Wall Street.

The whole idea of the tcotchke is to remind you or entice you. Or to imprint a brand opportunity on you. A relationship builder. I get it. But after a while it gets a bit trite.

Gosh this flashlight is handy– Thanks Super Awesome financial advisor for giving me this really cool Morgan Stanley flashlight. And hey, if Morgan Stanley can afford to give me this super awesome flashlight then they must be doing a great job with my money.

To me, what’s disturbing isn’t the idea of a ‘free gift’ or even a tcotchke. It’s the idea that somehow it is free.

The Dance

Let me paint you a picture. It starts off innocently enough. A pad of paper. A pen. Maybe even a beer coozy. A bag to put it in? Even better.

But then it’s not enough. So you move on to the shiny thermos. Maybe a picnic blanket. Golf balls? Heck yea. Hat? You’d be dumb not to. And then, the next thing you know– you’re deciding whether you’re going to wear the blue or black windbreaker today.

That’s money. A lot of money. All wrapped up in free stuff.

Two years before I left, the story floating around all of the offices was about a guy who was selling boxes and boxes of golf balls on eBay. I guess someone in compliance caught wind. Rumors were he was pulling in about $1000 a month. He was toast. Titleist, Nike, Callaway– we always got the best.

My bigger clients actually used to ask for certain models, by logo.

Now the firm actually has a person watching eBay to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Can you imagine? Checking eBay for your company’s golf balls as part of your daily compliance routine? All in the name of free.

And that was one advisor. At one firm. Getting that many golf balls.

The Magic

My business partner taught me the trick. Every time I talked to a wholesaler of a fund or manager {which was daily}, I’d ask them for golf balls. Two days later; magic. A fund fact sheet in a box full of golf balls, crammed with branded calculators & pens, as that little extra bonus.

It’s not magic. You want lower expenses? You want more reasonable fees? Start looking at all of the magic pouring out of the doors of Wall Street.

I didn’t see the Nic Cage version of Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but I read Roger Ebert’s review. And I think it rings true about the magic on Wall Street…

“…It attracts children and young teenagers with the promise of cinematic fast food: It’s all sugar and caffeine, no nutrition.”


The $16 Billion Opportunity in–Tchotchkes?- Harvard Business School

Bonus Track:

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