Behind the Search for the Next Great DRTV Pitchman

Telebrands Holds Tryouts to Find Successor to Inimitable Billy Mays

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Baseball had Babe Ruth. Basketball had Michael Jordan. Golf has, or at least had, Tiger Woods. And direct-response TV had Billy Mays until he died last year at 50.

Billy Mays
Billy Mays
Replacing any of them ranges from hard to impossible. But Telebrands, marketer of the Ped Egg, Jupiter Jack and the Bottle Top, gave it a try last week as it invited more than two dozen would-be pitchmen and pitchwomen, who arrived at their own expense from all over the country to a modest Midtown Manhattan studio to show their stuff.

Was there another Billy Mays in the bunch? The answer after more than three hours of auditions was a resounding maybe. A casting call drew a group of contestants who would have worked on just about any reality show, plus some moments akin to the first rounds of "American Idol," as one contestant repeatedly struggled with and dropped the Bottle Top during his pitch.

Highlights included Grant Arrington, a Georgia man who had both the beard and build to match the late Mr. Mays, even if his day job is with a company that handles events management and disaster recovery for the Department of Homeland Security. He's also worked on local TV ads and hosted beauty pageants.

"I don't think it will fly," said Sunny Khubani, daughter of Telebrands founder A.J. Khubani and one of the judges. "It would be inappropriate to put somebody who looked just like somebody who just passed away on the air."

The right stuff
Then there was George Hoskins of South Carolina, who's already a small-screen version of Mr. Mays, having produced 300 infomercials streamed on eBay. He buys products at dollar stores and resells them using the video pitches, having convinced the auction site to add video for that purpose. But the judges didn't rate him quite ready for the bigger screen.

Telebrands founder A.J. Khubani
Telebrands founder A.J. Khubani
One obvious favorite among the judges -- also including Mr. Khubani, his wife Poonam and son Jahan -- was Rob Ekno of Southern California. He's had experience already as a host on home shopping networks, has a shaved head, good looks and a smooth, high-speed, high-volume presentation.

If it's possible to be too polished, that could be Mr. Ekno's only shortcoming. Commenting on another contestant with a prominent New Jersey accent, Jahan Khubani said, "If people make fun of our pitchman, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Look at Vince."

That would be Vince Offer, a.k.a. Shlomi, pitcher of the ShamWow and Slap Chop -- products outside the Telebrands orbit.

Another favorite of the Khubani family was Paul DeGrocco, on-field promotion host for the Long Island Ducks minor-league baseball team, who seemingly had a generous helping of Mr. Mays' ability to connect with ordinary folks and even a slight resemblance to Mr. Mays' actual son.

Pitching beauty products
Even Advertising Age media columnist Larry Dobrow may one day be called upon to quit his day job. While the Khubanis didn't discuss him as a candidate to be called back for further evaluation immediately, Mr. Khubani was still talking about him even hours after his appearance. "He just made me feel comfortable," Mr. Khubani said.

Turns out it's not all about yelling and selling. Or at least not yelling. While Mr. Mays was the undisputed king of gadget pitching, Mr. Khubani and others never considered using him on beauty products.

Mr. Dobrow was the only contestant gutsy enough to try pitching Heel-Tastic, a product for softening heel callouses. The judges were impressed by his impromptu selling line: "Your wife is happy, life is happy." It's unclear yet whether his wife will be happy.

Ultimately, not unlike a reality show, the people of America will decide on the next big pitchman. Not with text messages, but with their purchases, as one or more of last week's contestants will get a shot to make a commercial for Telebrands. In DRTV, the only judging that really matters is how many of those operators stop standing by and get to work, or at least as importantly these days, how much traffic spikes on the website.

Nobody has ever made more of that happen than Billy Mays. The same products invariably sold better when pitched by him than others, Mr. Khubani said. He was responsible for as much as 70% of the DRTV gadget ads on air at the time of his death, by some estimates, and a considerable if shrinking percentage even afterward.

Mr. Mays pitched Jupiter Jack, one of the last ads he made, entirely posthumously. Telebrands tried Mr. Mays's frequent producer and longtime friend Anthony Sullivan too, but returned to Mr. Mays.

"You can double the response with the right pitch person vs. no pitch person, " Mr. Khubani said. But he also said, "I don't think anybody can ever really replace Billy."

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