What Advertisers Can Learn From Billy Mays

Famed Pitchman's Success for Direct-Response Marketers Still Eludes Brand Marketers

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Tim O'Leary
Tim O'Leary
The outpouring of memorials and remembrances following the death of TV pitchman Billy Mays was a testament to the career he had built, while also speaking to the true reach of direct-response TV. News of Mays' untimely death hit in the middle of a string of celebrity deaths, with Mays' obituary sharing space with the King of Pop (Michael Jackson), one of the world's most famous pin-up girls (Farrah Fawcett), an iconic TV personality (Ed McMahon) and a rumor mill that had even more famous people dying. Despite the competition, the death of TV's biggest reigning pitchman was national news.

Mays had achieved a kind of cult status that made him interesting to almost everyone, and contradicted the common misconception that only a select demographic watches DRTV. Google "Billy Mays" and you will find more than 3.5 million entries that transcend demographic boundaries. My 10-year-old-nephew was a big fan. My erudite lawyer called to ask about Mays. The week after his death, I was at a dinner with senior-level marketing executives from two Fortune 500 companies, and most of the dinner conversation surrounded Billy.

Billy Mays
Billy Mays
Mays' broad appeal was not a surprise to me. Several years ago my agency was hired by OxiClean, the brand that put him on the map, to deal with its "Billy Mays" issue. The company had rapidly grown from a "pitchman" and "home shopping" product into a large national retail brand, to a great extent based on the power of Billy's pitch. Big-money competitors were nipping at its heels with versions of "Oxi" products, and OxiClean wanted to keep up the momentum. It had initially been advised that it needed to migrate from DRTV into a more sophisticated brand strategy and had hired a well-known brand agency to produce expensive, beautiful and amusing new commercials. The result was a miserable failure, with sales dropping quickly. OxiClean then came to us, hoping to "up the production quality and brand message" while maintaining its direct-sales roots. It was also worried about its dependence on Mays. He was synonymous with the brand, and OxiClean was rightly concerned about one personality being the face of its company.

As often happens when analyzing DRTV, consumer feedback on Mays had absolutely no correlation to his success. He was polarizing. Many consumers were disturbingly vocal in their dislike for him. But the true test of the effectiveness of DRTV is based on results, not random consumer complaints, and that was where Mays shined. People would complain about Billy, but he got them to buy, from TV and at retail.

We produced two ads with a different spokesperson and two with Billy. There was no comparison. Consumers wanted to buy from Billy, and not just any Billy but the loud and in-your-face pitchman doing interesting demonstrations. Accordingly, it is no surprise that years later, after OxiClean was acquired by mega-marketer Church & Dwight, Billy remained the brand's spokesman, doing his pitch the same way he always had.

Mays' success reinforces many facts that direct-response marketers innately understand but brand marketers still find elusive, including:

  • Everyone watches DRTV. Kids, moms, lawyers, business execs, poor, middle class and the rich -- they all watch. DRTV is not a demographic profile; it is a marketing method and sales channel.
  • Direct response is a valid approach to brand building. The essence of brand is not beautiful imagery or clever slogans; often it is more about consumer acceptance of a product's ability to solve a problem. In fact, after OxiClean's success, mega-brand marketers such as P&G and Clorox entered the DRTV world, often with products and creative designed to replicate what OxiClean had done.
  • DRTV drives sales. For most products, the real miracle of direct response is its ability to drive retail sales, and it allows companies with limited advertising budgets to do battle with the big boys. OxiClean was a nice little company when it only sold direct to consumers. When it rolled into retail using the cost efficiencies of DRTV, it became a powerhouse that threatened the world's most sophisticated retail brands.
  • People like to be sold. Brand advertising is frequently so obsessed with itself that it often forgets to sell us the product. Show us what you want us to buy, and tell us why we should buy it. Mays made us understand the value of his products.
  • The only true test of DRTV is "live testing." Clients constantly ask about an alternative to a real media test, but unfortunately there is no replacement. People in a forced group environment act differently than they do in the privacy of their own homes. I can guarantee you that Billy Mays never would have made it out of a focus group, yet he became one of the most famous pitchmen in history.
Tim O'Leary is co-founder and CEO of R2C Group, the largest independently owned direct-response-advertising agency in the U.S. Mr. O'Leary's award-winning book on entrepreneurship and management, "Warriors, Workers, Whiners & Weasels," was released in 2006, and his latest work, "Pitchmen," is scheduled for release in 2010. You can also catch up with him on his blog, The Bizzy Life.
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