Marketing Lessons From The Street

“When I introduce you, I’m gonna say, ‘This is a friend of mine.’ That means you’re a connected guy.”
— Al Pacino as Lefty in the movie “Donnie Brasco”

I learned some wonderful marketing tips from mobsters.

I grew up in northern Kentucky. My father was a professional gambler, and the Newport and Covington areas were heavily influenced, or controlled, by the Mafia.

My dad said about his bookmaking operations, “We can’t advertise on television or put a sign in the window. We can’t sue if someone doesn’t pay us. All we can do is hope that honorable people refer us to other honorable people.”

It must have been a good system. Without advertising, he never seemed to lack for customers.

I live in a more refined world of high finance and well-educated financial consultants. Many of my competitors are affiliated with huge corporations with million dollar marketing budgets.

As a small business, I have a marketing weapon that is impossible for a large corporation to compete with.

The friend-of-the-friend referral.

When I am meeting someone for the first time, I try to find if we have a common friend or connection. If you go through the six degrees of separation, most people will connect before you get two degrees away.

Instead of just saying my name, I mention our common relationship.

The common relationship is an immediate door opener and an immediate connection.

Especially if the connector is someone highly thought of.

Since I watched everyone do it when I was growing up, I thought that the friend-of-a-friend referral was a common practice.

I’ve discovered that most people don’t. They meet a new person, say hello, maybe learn their name and go on from there.

I don’t get it.

Being a friend-of-a-friend is the quickest way to get in my door. It’s the only way that you will become my Facebook or Linkedin friend.

I have several thousand Facebook friends when you include my business and fan pages. If you don’t have a common friend amongst them, I won’t add you as a friend unless I know you personally.

That doesn’t count celebrity “friends” that I don’t really know. I used to have Newt Gingrich and Bob Woodward as Facebook friends but I dropped them as I got tons of requests where one or the other was the only common “friend.”

I’ve met Newt four times, getting on and off airplanes. (I used to frequently go on a route that went to Washington via Atlanta.) That’s not enough for either of us to give a “friend-of-a-friend” referral.

I did have a friend-of-a-friend connection with John Edwards. I met him in 2003 when he was gearing up to run for President. We met in a crowded room and when I got my chance to say hello, I told him I was a friend of one of his former law partners.

Of the people in the room, I wound up having lunch with him. I wound up donating a reasonably large sum to his campaign, so it was a good friend-of-a-friend deal for him, too.

John’s political career didn’t end the way I had hoped, but he and Al Gore (who I got to know well after a friend-of-a-friend introduction) were the two people I’ve ever gotten to know who had a chance to be President of the United States.

“Donny Brasco” is a terrific movie at many levels, but I was always fascinated by the importance it placed on personal connections and being referred by the right people.

The referral process happens in every level of society. It’s how private clubs and organizations select their members.

Some of my friends will accuse me of name dropping. I don’t care and won’t change a lifetime habit that has worked pretty well for me.

Unlike my father’s world, I can do fancy marketing campaigns and I have good access to the media. From a business standpoint, none of those tactics work as well as being, a friend of a friend.

As Lefty said in Donny Brasco, “It means you are a connected guy.”

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the bestselling author of the book, Wealth Without Wall Street; McNay, who lives in Richmond, Ky., is an award-winning financial columnist and Huffington Post contributor. You can learn more about him at