All in the Family1 Jul, 2012 By: Doug McPherson Response
Something interesting is happening in direct response: the torch is being passed. Now the children of DR legends are taking their own places in the spotlight. “Hey dad, can you pass me that script?”
Billy Mays III, son of the late — and arguably greatest pitchman ever — Billy Mays Jr., says he knows his dad would be proud of whatever he does with his life as long as he enjoys it.
Mays III is indeed enjoying his chosen profession: direct response, of course.
“I’m sure he’d be a bit wary that I might run into all of the same obstacles he faced along his journey,” he says. “And while I have my own unique barriers to cross, I also have a heightened perspective from seeing his successes and mistakes from an outside, yet up-close point of view.”
Up-close? Yes. Mays III got to see the business from many interesting angles. One he clearly remembers is playing with toys under the same table that held salsa his dad was pitching as part of the Salsa Master campaign. “I even remember the taste of the salsa,” Mays III says.
And his dad’s influence has been as strong as a spicy salsa. He says, “My dad had a definite influence on me. I got my start helping out on sets. One day he brought me in to help out on a spot for Kaboom and that was that.”
Mays III relishes all the different networks of people in DR and how they all overlap in some way. “When you realize how connected we all are, you can truly wish the best for your colleagues and competitors alike,” he adds.
Today, Mays III spends most of his time on the TV production side, and lately he’s been helping inventors get their ideas to the right people. But will he end up in front of the camera? “I’ve always been wary of getting in front of the camera,” he says. “But I’ve recently begun to entertain the thought more. If an opportunity presented itself and it felt right, I’d be open to the idea.”
If he does he says he’ll remember his dad’s advice: “He always said, ‘Nerves are good, they remind you that you’re alive.’”
One of Many
It turns out Mays III is one of many children of DR parents who are flexing their muscles the industry.
Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, daughter of Tim Hawthorne, president of Hawthorne Direct, a DR company based in Fairfield, Iowa, is a perfect example.
When Jessica was born, Tim lived in California but opted to move to Iowa to raise his daughter “in a more wholesome environment.” Then, right after high school, she left for — you guessed it — California: first for college and then to work as a literary talent agent. She was quickly successful, becoming the youngest female in her agency promoted to full agent. But her heart was still with dad. She joined him in 2007 and is now the company’s Los Angeles-based director of operations.
Tim says he always thought she’d be a great addition. “She never approached me,” he recalls. “I had to steal her away from her superstar Hollywood agent career, and I’ve never regretted it. It’s amazing to spend time with my daughter … it’s a true gift.”
Jessica’s move to DR was, well, natural. “The direct response industry has always been second nature because I essentially grew up in it,” she says. “I love working with the great, smart and passionate people that not only make up our client list, but our employees, too. We have fun every day, and our clients’ success is our success.”
Another DR dad, Lee Swanson, credited with saving Hooked on Phonics and who currently consults at Beachbody, the in-home fitness solutions company, is happy his son, Scott, joined the DR business, too.
Scott’s entry was humble indeed. While studying at Arizona State University, Scott needed a job. Lee knew the owners of a nearby call center, and they took on Scott as a part-time sales trainer on the overnight shift.
“I guess you could say I joined the industry out of desperation,” Scott says with a laugh. “But really, it was a great fit; they let me to go to school and work around my class schedule.”
Scott has come a long way from those late nights. Today, he’s president at Wisconsin-based inbound consultative call center CallGenX. “It’s been great to spread my operational wings,” he says. “I love my job and the industry because they’re always changing with new challenges and new adventures. And the leaders in this industry are outstanding. I’ve had some great mentors, my father included. I owe them a lot.”
Another great mentor (and dad) is Kevin Harrington, chairman and founder of TVGoods Inc., and a pioneer of the infomercial industry. And paying close attention to his dad’s rise in DR was his son Brian.
“I remember my dad giving me samples of products and asking me what I thought of them,” Brian says. “Even when I was 10 years old, he’d let me sit in on high-level meetings and I’d share my opinions. I was a lot of fun.”
Today, Brian, 23 and a Penn State University graduate, is learning the DR ropes at TVGoods, but not before he experimented with work outside of DR. “I thought what my dad was doing was cool, but I wanted to prove myself by myself,” he says.
After college he joined Sprint. “I was doing well, but I didn’t like it. I wanted something I loved,” Brian recalls.
Kevin says he wanted Brian to work “out in the real world — our world sometimes isn’t so real,” he says with a chuckle. “I thought it was good for him to do something else. If he’d been happy at Sprint, God bless him.”
Brian is now in the middle of his training program. “At the end of the day he’ll be accountable as all of us are here,” Kevin says. “He reports to other folks here and he has to prove himself.”
Mike Medico, founder of E+M Advertising in New York, also wanted his son, Anthony, to get experience outside of DR. “I didn’t want him to come to our agency immediately out of college, “ he says. “I always thought it was important for him to have his own identity and to have his talents take him in whatever direction he wanted.”
So Anthony worked in sales on the cable network and Internet side for seven years before joining Mike 12 years ago. “He had a vision for building an online unit for our agency, he wrote a business plan, formulated a budget and presented it,” Mike says. “Today, Anthony is the president of the agency.”
Anthony recalls his early training in the business. “As a kid, I remember going to commercial shoots and being very interested in the entire process,” he says. “Watching my father write commercials, produce them and then finally seeing them on air on TV had quite an impact on me as a kid. I always felt like my dad enjoyed going to work every day.”
The More, the Merrier
And some parents have more than one child in the industry. Hal Altman, founder of Motivational Fulfillment and Logistics Services in Chino, Calif., enjoys having both his daughter and son work with him.
Daughter Andrea Stuhley’s first job was in production for the TV show, “Full House.” But then, she joined her dad in what has become a 20-plus year role. “It turned out to be where I belonged,” she says. “I got married while working here, and had my kids while working here — all while getting to see my dad every day. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
Today, she is the executive vice president and oversees the DR portion of the company.
Son Tony joined Motivational after being a civil litigator for 14 years. “As a litigator I spent virtually all of my time fighting with other attorneys,” he says. “Now I work in a creative, collaborative atmosphere to be part of a successful campaign.”
Tony now serves as senior vice president, CFO, in-house legal counsel and directs the retail division.
“It’s the best thing in the world to come to work every day with your kids,” Hal says.
Of course, moms are role models, too. Take Collette Liantonio, who launched Concepts TV Productions Inc. in 1983. “No one grows up with aspirations of being a DRTV producer,” Liantonio says.
But when the very first commercial you make (1979, “The Bug Zapper”) is a hit, you just go with it.
“Success is addictive and we’ve enjoyed 30 years of it,” she says. Her daughter, also named Collette, watched that success growing up.
“I’ve always looked up to my mother and her entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s been my goal to someday follow her path,” says Collette DeBenedetto, who’s been acting in her mom’s commercials since she was three-years-old.
Mom says her daughter’s real training came from watching and critiquing DRTV ads “since she could talk.”
Daughter must have been paying very good attention. Today, as a product development specialist at Beachbody, she’s contributed to success stories like P90X.
“My advice to her was to learn from the best, work smart and always give it 100 percent,” says Liantonio.
Moms can also be role models for their sons. Joan Renfrow, mother to Scott Mellini and Lou Mellini, proves that.
“My mom has always played a great part my life and profession,” says Lou, who’s worked in DRTV, film and video for more than 20 years and earned several national and international awards.
“It was natural for me to follow in my mother’s footsteps. She put me to work at an early age, dressing me in a gorilla suit for a chicken commercial,” says Scott, who today is an executive producer and who helps out at Onyx. “Ever since then, she has trained me in every position form production assistant to producer.”
After working with Ron Popeil on some of his Ronco products, Renfrow founded her own production company, Onyx Productions. “I never really encouraged or discouraged them, but I sure put them to work on projects when they were available,” she recalls.
Renfrow says her best advice to her sons is this: “Give clients more than they ask for.”
The elder Kevin Lyons knows how Renfrow feels. Lyons, who helped bring DR to national cable, specifically the network Lifetime, has three sons in the business: Kevin runs Opportunity Media, a DR company his dad formed in 1986; Michael is building Precision Demand, a company that applies new ways to measure TV audiences; and Sean is running digital and social media for Nike at R/GA, a world-wide full-service ad agency.
The younger Kevin says his memories of being around DR as a kid are fond ones. “I remember roaming the halls of Lifetime during visits now and then,” he recalls.
After finishing an MBA at Columbia University and a busy career at AT&T, Kevin, the son, was ready for a change. “I ran a government markets team for AT&T. Yeah, AT&T and government — talk about the opposite of DR,” he says.
Several discussions later with his father about a career change, he decided to try DR for six months. “It’s now been 12 years,” he says.
“My father is an incredible person, and he’s shared a lot of advice,” Kevin says. “One thing that stands out is his belief in the importance of long-term relationships built upon partnership, not shortsighted goals.”
Of course dads can influence — but grandfathers can, too. Lindsay Fontaine knows that. As a senior in college studying business, she decided at the last minute to add a certificate in advertising — a field both her dad and grandfather knew very well. Syd Yallen, the grandfather, was a pioneer in media buying and her dad, Robert Yallen, now heads Los Angeles-based Inter/Media Advertising, the company Syd started in 1974.
“Inter/Media wasn’t in my original plans but I thought I’d try it for a year and then re-evaluate,” Fontaine says. “I ended up falling in love, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
In fact, when Fontaine joined the company five years ago, her grandfather was still clocking in to work. So for three years, three generations worked side-by-side. Syd passed away from a stroke in 2009, but his kindness and advice live on in son and granddaughter.
“My grandfather and dad have always taught me how to succeed in business,” she says. “They taught me the importance of relationships, and that if you truly believe in what you are doing, there is no limit to what you can achieve.”
Another person in the industry who knows about losing someone who could inspire is Jenny Weisbarth. She’s the niece of Jake Weisbarth, the widely respected DR pioneer who was behind numerous successful products, including his work for King World on the Sears Craftsman line.
Jenny, who is the media manager for radio and TV acquisition with Guthy-Renker Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., says growing up she remembers “many knife sets, Chia Pets and all those crazy 1980s workout gadgets. Uncle Jake always seemed so happy when talking about work.”
Jenny says after she ended up in the industry, she and Jake would laugh about its work-hard, play-hard mentality.
“He always told me to be myself and everything else would come to me,” she says. “I wish he were here to see how far I’ve come. He would be so proud of me and I know he’d take me to dinner and a Broadway show to celebrate. Thank you, Uncle Jake, for helping to get me where I am and for believing in me. I owe it all to you.”