One of the most successful self-promoters in the history of marketing services, he now has his biggest platform yet on "American Inventor." The show, produced by the acerbic Simon Cowell of "American Idol," chronicles would-be inventors pitching their concepts to a team of marketing-world judges, including the colorful Mr. Hall.
Thanks to the program, which won the night on its March 16 premier and came in second in its second week with an audience of 13 million, Mr. Hall is fast becoming the best-known P&G alum ever. Yet he's developed a coterie of skeptics among former associates in his hometown and alma mater P&G. A few practically seethe when his name is invoked, not unlike a couple of his fellow judges on "American Inventor."
"I'm not a big fan," said one former P&G executive. "Most of [his] stuff at P&G went nowhere."
It's hard to tell. Mr. Hall won't disclose those 18 products he's helped develop, citing client confidentiality. One of the inventions he has disclosed crashed, and another literally burned. And he's listed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as an inventor on only one issued patent (for an ornamental keyboard design) and two pending ones.
doug hall 5.0
Then again, almost all the product or service concepts Mr. Hall claims to have helped develop and test belong to clients who've paid up to $150,000 to send teams of executives and researchers to his Eureka Ranch outside Cincinnati for creativity sessions.
He's now on the fourth iteration or so of his creativity process at his company, Richard Saunders International, named after Ben Franklin's nom de plume for "Poor Richard's Almanac," promising 50 concepts designed and tested for $50,000. Doug Hall 5.0, still in development, is a "hundred-day launch system" for quick launches. It's not unlike his original proposition of 30 ideas in 30 days. As any good P&G marketer can tell you, selling lines with numbers and time limits are often winners.
Mr. Hall in person can be charming, shrewd and one of the best self-promoters marketing-services has ever known. Think Jerry Della Femina, Donny Deutsch or Kevin Roberts, only using an oddball commercial think tank abutting a former gravel pit outside Cincinnati as his launch pad.
In the 1990s, Mr. Hall parlayed two features in Ad Age (full disclosure: both were written by this reporter) into two cover stories in Inc. His premise for the first round was using whacky stunts like Nerf gun fights, dice games and other amusements to unlock corporate creative juices. Then, for the next round, he dissed the Nerf guns and embraced a more scientific approach relying on brain and personality mapping of participants.
Eight to 10 years later, some ideas from those sessions covered in Ad Age have made it to market. The most memorable idea for Tyson Foods in 1998, Fajita Joe's sandwich mix (in a jar) was trademarked but never commercialized by Tyson. But other ideas, such as chicken nuggets in various kid-friendly shapes and with dips, have made it to market. The YMCA of Chicago did put several of the ideas from a 1995 session into market, including rock-climbing walls and "Camp Yahoo" branded short-term childcare centers at shopping malls.
A LexisNexis search shows more than 250 features on Mr. Hall since he started shop in 1990, including segments on CNN, NBC's "Dateline" and Canada's CBC. He's also had a radio show for entrepreneurs on Public Radio International, though it's been consigned to the Web since PRI dropped it.
Mr. Hall, 47, who used the stage name Merwyn as a boy magician when he got his start as an inventor developing magic kits, graduated with a chemical engineering degree from the University of Maine. He was the rare maverick hired not once, but twice, into the buttoned-down stable of P&G in the 1980s. Having left once for a job at audio marketer Bose, he was allowed to return less than a year later, when, as he put it, "things didn't work out for a variety of reasons."
He was the first known bounceback that promote-from-within P&G ever allowed in brand management, though the company did later welcome dot-com prodigals back. Not only did Mr. Hall make a comeback, he said he was offered two jobs: one as brand manager of Tide, the other doing skunkworks projects for Crush soda, a much lower-caste assignment. He chose the skunkworks and the title "master marketing inventor."
The title was Mr. Hall's invention, said Kip Knight, now VP marketing-North America for eBay, who hired him both times at P&G. "It's a pretty good job when you can make up your own title," he said. "It was also pretty accurate. He can take the most boring category or business situation and find an exciting way to think about it."
Mr. Hall's first big impact in 1982, Mr. Knight said, was giving away a diamond, along with a thousand cubic zirconia, in packages of Spic and Span. The idea came after Ross Love, then advertising manager for the business, killed a more-expensive traditional cents-off promotion.
"I think Consumer Reports called it the most notorious consumer promotion ever," Mr. Knight concedes. But it also "blew the doors off anything we'd ever done" in brand promotion, even if some retailers wouldn't carry the boxes for fear of theft.
Mr. Hall at one point created, developed and shipped nine concepts in 12 months-easily a record for the deliberative P&G. One of those ideas-Pantastic Party Cakes-made Marketing Intelligence's annual list of top products in 1990. P&G recalled it a year later after reports that the pans in the kit charred and smoked during baking.
But by then Mr. Hall was already gone, having decided, according to Mr. Knight, that he could make a lot more money doing the same things on his own.
One of the first products Mr. Hall helped develop after P&G was Crystal Pepsi. A Pepsi spokesman at the time disputed that Mr. Hall invented the clear soda. Mr. Hall said he was part of the team that did. After the product failed, no one fought over credit. Mr. Hall hasn't specified any products developed at Eureka Ranch since.
His knack for rubbing some people the wrong way is proving valuable for building the dramatic tension on "American Inventor." He said he got the job after Mr. Cowell's people interviewed 400 people and couldn't find any who both knew about new products and were willing to be controversial.
He showed he could handle the latter quickly. When called by a recruiter for Mr. Cowell, Mr. Hall called the show "a cheesy clone of 'American Idol"' with a four-to-one chance of failure. "He started laughing," Mr. Hall said. "And the next thing you know, I'm out in LA. ... Between making fun of Simon, and making fun of the show concept, that was my ability to get the job."
"Simon called him the most annoying person he's ever met," said Mary Lou Quinlan, longtime agency executive who runs Just Ask a Woman (see story, P. 18) and a fellow "Inventor" judge who has frequently butted heads with Mr. Hall on the show. She can be heard muttering "asshole" at him in a rough cut after one of their many skirmishes on the first show.
Ed Evangelista, another judge and executive creative director for WPP Group's JWT, New York, noted that Mr. Cowell has nicknamed Mr. Hall "Slappy ... because he has that face you just want to slap."
Mr. Evangelista hasn't yet yielded to the temptation. But in footage not aired regarding the Sackmaster 2000, billed by its handyman inventor as allowing sandbags to be filled twice as fast, "Doug kept saying 'Where are your facts?"' Mr. Evangelista said. "I stood up and shouted 'Hurricane Katrina. There's your fact.' That shut him up. ... I think the guy just likes to hear the sound of his own voice."
In an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer, Mr. Hall refers to his fellow judges as "a couple of advertising hacks and a venture capitalist."
In an interview, Mr. Hall said: "A dear friend called and told me: 'The really sick thing is that you've become the voice of reason. You're the last person I'd ever think could [play] that role.' I'm the counterculture corporate rebel. Now I'm the adult supervision to the foolishness."
The edits may actually be making Mr. Hall look soft. At one point he rejected 141 consecutive pitches. In a comment that hasn't aired yet but he fears may, he pointed out to a contestant that the name of the show is "American Inventor," not "American Sob Story."
As for Mr. Hall's latest invention-the bad guy on "American Inventor"-the product may not really match the packaging. "He's actually a very sympathetic, empathetic person," Mr. Knight said. "I'm concerned he's being portrayed as mean and nasty, and that's clearly not Doug's personality."