The Mayflower Marketer: Sydney Biddle Barrows is Up to New Tricks

'I am the Martha Stewart of client experience.'

In the years following her scandal, Ms. Barrows found herself trapped in a peculiar brand of fame. She was on the town in a cocktail dress nightly, but had nowhere to go during the day; she was virtually unemployable. Ms. Barrows got by by giving lectures and writing books. Mayflower Madam: The Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows was hailed by Fortune magazine as one of the top business books of the year, though its author was just eking out a living.

All this began to change, however, in 2006 when she met Dan Kennedy, an irreverent marketing guru and author. Mr. Kennedy puts on conferences and provides a “resource center” for entrepreneurs called GKIC (Glazer-Kennedy Insider’s Circle). Mostly out of curiosity, Mr. Kennedy decided to take in a lecture entitled “How to Market a High-Priced Service” by the former madam at a Chicago conference. “She was brilliant,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Kennedy took her under his wing and helped her shape her consulting business. He gave her a marketing tip: don’t run from your Mayflower Madam past. In the age of Google, it’s impossible to hide. And besides—legal or not—Ms. Barrows was one heck of a merchandiser when she was a madam, with newspapers reporting that she was raking in $1 million a year. “Sydney is the most intuitive person I’ve worked with under the umbrella of marketing in 35 years,” said Mr. Kennedy. She calls him “my fairy godfather.”

Ms. Barrows still believes that a little panache can make any business stand out. When, for example, a compounding pharmacist enlisted her services, she was dismayed that the company didn’t capitalize on being a third-generation business. She ordered them to find some old equipment and display it.

“One of the biggest mistakes day spas or cosmetic surgeons make is that, first you go and see the person who is going to be doing the service—and that office is generally pretty nice—and then you get sent on to patient coordination, where you are going to talk about money, and all hell breaks loose. I mean, you’re looking at a desk with metal legs and faux wood, and there are all these filing cabinets, which might not necessarily be in the best condition,” Ms. Barrows said. “And if you are a plastic surgeon and you want to charge somebody $30,000 for a face-lift, you’d best not be seen with a Bic pen.”

With Mr. Kennedy, Ms. Barrows wrote a 2009 book titled Uncensored Sales Strategies: A Radical New Approach to Selling Your Customers What They Really Want — No Matter What Business You’re In. The premise is that the Mayflower Madam’s marketing strategies work anywhere. It’s certainly working for her—some months, she said, she even surpasses what she made “back in the day.”

For example, Ms. Barrows recommends well-chosen gifts to build loyalty, just as the Mayflower Madam sent a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon to clients at Christmas, “subtly reinforcing in his mind that we were a prestige business.” In the same way that she would phone a john to check in after the girl left, Ms. Barrows says that it’s important to keep in touch with clients. “I create a certain environment for consumers,” she said. “I am the Martha Stewart of client experience.”

If the Mayflower Madam scandal seems tame now, it is probably not so much that the world is bored with high-priced prostitution (ask Eliot Spitzer) but that WASPs are in eclipse. They simply can’t compete with the antics of the Kardashians or the cast of Celebrity Rehab.

Ms. Barrows is nevertheless proud to be descended from Elder William Brewster and John Howland, a Pilgrim who fell over the side of the Mayflower, was fished out and lived to tell the tale. It seems that, nearly 30 years after her arrest, the Mayflower Madam too has landed on her feet.

editorial@observer.com