We are all desperate for smart non-coronavirus, non-Trump content, and few are satiating that hunger better than Scott Galloway. The guy is inescapable. He’s officially a clinical professor of marketing at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, where he teaches brand strategy and digital marketing to second-year M.B.A. students. But there’s so much more: a twice-a-week podcast, Pivot, with Kara Swisher; a new show on Vice TV; a weekly blog, No Mercy, No Malice; and a second weekly podcast, The Prof G Show, launched in March. There are also two best-selling books: The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google; and The Algebra of Happiness, about the meaning of life. (The book followed a video he did on the same subject that went viral.) He’s a nearly ubiquitous presence on cable television, which can’t seem to get enough of the 55-year-old bald, straight-shooting former tech entrepreneur from California. When we speak, he tells me he’s about to be on CNN, Bloomberg, and PBS from his waterfront home, in Delray Beach, Florida.
Galloway is thriving amid the pandemic. “I don’t like to say this out loud,” he says, “but I’m sort of living my best life. I am podcasting, writing, and taping, and doing online classes pretty much all day. I’m actually a bit of an introvert, so this is a good time.” Asked whether this is, in fact, Scott Galloway’s moment, he demurs. “If that’s true,” he says, “that marks the moment as dysfunctional and desperate.” That string of sentences is exactly the reason listeners are hooked on Pivot—a mix of swagger that’s undershot with self-mockery, a rare combination for a Silicon Valley tech bro. On the show, he veers between complimenting Swisher for her “gangsta” thinking and then wondering if he is smart enough or if she has gotten too cocky.
One of his big themes during the lockdown is to work harder than everyone else. “If we think about NASCAR, the race is not won on the track,” he tells me. “It’s won in the pits. It’s about making progress when others are in the pits. And right now, I’m able to produce a shit ton of content and be very focused while everyone else is in the pits.”
Asked whether this is, in fact, Scott Galloway’s moment, he demurs. “If that’s true,” he says, “that marks the moment as dysfunctional and desperate.”
Galloway knows how to take advantage of opportunities. He was born in San Diego and raised by his single mother, a Jewish woman from England, who “lived and died a secretary,” he says, and then quickly adds, “It’s not a sob story.” He went to U.C.L.A. He likes to say he is “a product of big government” and thanks the “generosity” of California taxpayers for his education. He says he spent his time “making bongs and playing sports. I had a 2.27 G.P.A.” He wore his hair in a ponytail.
After U.C.L.A., he says, he lied about his grades and wangled a job as an analyst at Morgan Stanley. (He had heard they didn’t demand a drug test.) He hated it, so he decided to do “what all young males do, I moved back in with my mother and applied to business school.” As a second-year student at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, he started Prophet Brand Strategy, a consulting and brand-management firm. Ten years later, 400-employees strong, he sold it to Dentsu, the Japanese conglomerate. He tells me he then started a “bunch” of e-commerce companies. “If you were a white guy with a shaved head in the 1990s, people threw money at you,” he says. Most of them failed, including Red Envelope, an online retailer that tried to up the game of merchandising on the Internet. “Red Envelope failed slowly, so people think of it as a success,” he says.
In 2000, Galloway left San Francisco. “I decided to press reset. I hated the weather, the people, my job, myself. I divorced my wife and joined the faculty of N.Y.U.” He also worked with the hedge fund Harbinger Capital, which had bought a big stake in the New York Times Company and pushed the publisher to shed its extraneous assets—among them, About.com, the fancy Renzo Piano–designed headquarters, and the 18 percent stake in the Boston Red Sox—and focus on its digital-media strategy. Galloway went on the Times board. He clashed with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the head of the family that controls the company. When Harbinger sold its stake, Galloway left the Times board. “Please leave and never come back,” he says he was told, in what surely must be another example of Galloway’s wry sense of humor.
He says he spent his time “making bongs and playing sports. I had a 2.27 G.P.A.” He wore his hair in a ponytail.
In New York, Galloway reconnected with his old U.C.L.A. fraternity brother David Carey, who was then the new publisher of The New Yorker. (He is now head of public affairs and communications at Hearst.) Carey introduced Galloway around town and came away impressed with how his friend built his brand, slowly but surely. “Scott has this kind of very strange multi-generational appeal,” he says. “I think it’s a function of a very unique presentation style. He wears his anxieties on his sleeve. Who else talks about all of their worries?”
In 2017, Galloway caught the eye of Kara Swisher at a conference in Germany. His insights about big tech were perceptive and made her laugh. “It was really an interesting combination of in-your-face certainty with the fact that he was right,” she says. Three years ago, she invited Galloway on her Recode Decode podcast—even though, she says, nobody knew who he was—where he casually predicted that Amazon would buy Whole Foods. A week or so later, Amazon announced its $13.4 billion acquisition of the chain. Galloway says it was a lucky guess, albeit a logical one. “It was such an unusual call,” Swisher says. “Nobody was seeing it, although it was dead obvious.”
When Swisher was looking for a new podcast partner, she picked Galloway. “My rapport with him was so strangely good,” she says. On the Pivot podcast, she plays a combination of his therapist and his straight man. “The lesbian is the straight man,” she deadpans. There is a tension between his desire for attention and dislike of criticism. “We talk about his insecurity,” she says. “He’s very accessible as to his feelings, and I think that’s unusual, too. Like, ‘I feel inadequate to these people.’ He doesn’t shy from weakness, which I think is unusual for a man, even though he’s also super-arrogant like a guy, like, ‘I’m the gangster.’”
His Vice TV gig also came about through serendipity. “Netflix didn’t call me,” he says. He elaborates, “Vice employed this incredible strategy: they were sycophantic and ready to put a show on the air in 19 days.” His analysis of his audience (80 percent men, with a median age of 42) led him to another idea: “Men as a cohort have fallen behind every other cohort on almost every dimension, relatively speaking. The media has taught us that masculinity and toxicity are the same thing, and I don’t think that’s true. For 3,500 years, if you were white, male, and heterosexual, every room you walked into, you were right. For the last 10 years, every room we walk into, we’re wrong. And it’s about time, I get it. But there’s a big opportunity in coaching men. I want this show to be about being a better version of your masculine professional and personal self.”
“He doesn’t shy from weakness, which I think is unusual for a man, even though he’s also super-arrogant like a guy, like, ‘I’m the gangster.’”
You might have figured out by now that Galloway, who has a quarter-million Twitter followers, likes to foment battles. He has called for the breakup of Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. He’s called Zuckerberg the “most dangerous person in the world.” He can’t understand why even though he has spent $100,000 on Apple products, he has to stand in line behind a teenager who has just come in for a little free Wi-Fi sexting instead of being treated to a glass of champagne and shown the latest products. He says Bezos is the “clearest strategic thinker and visionary in the history of business” but “lacks character.”
Lately, he’s been on a rampage against higher education, which is somewhat ironic given that he is a professor at an elite New York City university. On May 21, Anderson Cooper invited Galloway on his show, where he filled the airwaves with his provocative thoughts about the future of higher education, beginning with the fact that most colleges and universities have raised their tuition 1,400 percent over the past 40 years—a higher rate of increase than health-care costs, he says—and without the slightest bit of innovation. “If you walked into a class today, it wouldn’t look, smell, or feel much different than it did 40 years ago,” he told Cooper. Cooper wondered how the coronavirus would impact colleges’ business models. Galloway said the most vulnerable were those colleges charging high tuition but offering little social or academic cachet. “Second-tier universities are to education what department stores are to retail; they’re about to begin a death march,” he said.
He reserved his toughest criticism for the elite colleges and universities, like those in the Ivy League, which enroll a total of only about 64,000 undergraduate students, less than one half of 1 percent of American undergraduates. He referred to them as “luxury brands,” far removed from their original educational mandates. “Their benefit comes from artificial scarcity,” he said. Instead of making unexceptional teenagers into exceptional adults, they focus their energy on the teenagers who were able to prove themselves exceptional to an admissions committee. “They brag that they turn away 90 percent of applicants,” he said, “which is tantamount to a head of a housing shelter bragging that he turned away 90 percent of applicants last night. They are no longer in the business of public service. They are a finishing school for rich people and some incredibly remarkable lower- and middle-income people. They will most likely maintain their pricing power and double down on their exclusivity.”
When Galloway was done, Cooper seemed dumbfounded. “This is the most interesting five minutes I’ve had in a long time. I would like to take your class.” Without missing a beat, Galloway said, “Go on, Anderson, go on!”
William D. Cohan is a writer in New York City