DR Hall of Fame Roundtable: The Pioneering Spirit!1 Apr, 2014 By: Thomas Haire Response
Members of the second class of the DR Hall of Fame chat about their histories, their passions and what makes direct response great.
Response Magazine and its Advisory Board will welcome the inductees for the second class of the Direct Response Hall of Fame at a special ceremony during Response Expo in San Diego at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 1.
Not only will the group be honored during the induction ceremony but many of the inductees will also sit in on a special panel discussion with that will take place from 1:45-2:45 p.m. at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront.
The 10 inductees are:
- Chickie Bucco is president of Katz Direct, a Katz Television Group Company.
- Tim Hawthorne is the founder, chairman and CEO of Hawthorne Direct, a full-service brand response advertising agency.
- AJ Khubani founded TELEBrands Corp. in 1983. Today, TELEBrands is thriving as a nearly $1 billion marketing giant.
- Collette Liantonio launched Concepts TV Productions in 1983. Concepts TV has won more than 150 awards for hits like Go Duster, Better Pasta Pot and Finishing Touch.
- Tony Little has been a television and fitness icon for more than 25 years, known as “America’s Personal Trainer.”
- Pitchman and marketer Billy Mays’ dozens of hit TV products grossed more than $1 billion in sales. He passed away at age 50 in 2009.
- Suzanne Somers spent 21 years on network television and has also been involved in in direct response television and home shopping for more than 20 years after introducing the Thighmaster in 1990.
- Gary and Mary West founded West Corp. in 1986. The company went public in 1996 and, in 2006, was sold for more than $4 billion with Gary and Mary retaining approximately 20-percent ownership. Today, Gary and Mary are pioneering philanthropists.
- Katie Williams has spent 30 years in direct response, founded both Williams Worldwide Inc. (1987) and Williams Worldwide Television (1992), and is the president of Southern California-based Ideal Living Direct and the founder and CEO of Williams Digital Direct.
This group joins last year’s class of inductees: Jim Caldwell, Frank Cannella, Bill Guthy, Kevin Joseph Lyons, Joe Pedott, Ron Popeil, Greg Renker, Sy Sperling and Sydney Yallen.
Recently, Response was able to catch up with all of the living inductees to discuss their careers, the direct response business and more.
What does it mean to you to be inducted into the DR Hall of Fame?
Chickie Bucco: It’s an honor to be recognized by my peers.
Tim Hawthorne: It’s a unique honor to be recognized by my peers and stand among the best in the business of DR. I’m humbled and appreciative.
AJ Khubani: When I think of the term “Hall of Fame” in other categories like baseball or rock-and-roll, I think of legendary figures that have achieved greatness. This is a great honor. However, I feel that my greatest business achievements are yet to come.
Collette Liantonio: It is an absolute honor to be inducted into the DR Hall of Fame along with such talented veterans of DRTV. Together we have helped realize the dreams of thousands of inventors and entrepreneurs. It’s thrilling to think that the products and shows we have created will be known for generations to come. I really feel we are a part of the American Dream.
Tony Little: I’m incredibly honored to be recognized by this renowned organization. I love the DRTV industry and to be included with the all-time greats means more to me than I can possibly express.
Suzanne Somers: I first experienced direct response in the late 1980s with the Thighmaster. Its success blew me away. But what impressed me the most was having the ability to communicate directly with my constituency, which was a gift from my years on “Three’s Company.” And I wasn’t in character as Chrissy Snow — I was Suzanne. Since that time, I have spent more than 20 years in electronic shopping and in collaboration with great DR companies like American Telecast and, recently, with Hampton Direct. I have continued to enjoy this wonderful business.
Gary West: Mary and I are honored and very appreciative to be inducted into the DR Hall of Fame because the DR business made everything else we have accomplished possible.
Katie Williams: I’m honored to receive this tribute, along with other legends of our industry. Most of all, I’m grateful to the many people who have contributed to my success: mentors, clients, partners, team members and many dear friends from all facets of our industry. I’m fortunate to have been touched by so many amazing people.
Why do you believe the Response Advisory Board supported your case for induction into this exclusive group?
Bucco: To me it’s an acknowledgment of the success of Katz Direct as a company.
Katz realized the need for specialists in this field and established Katz Direct 25 years ago. Katz committed the infrastructure and resources needed to deal with what we could clearly see was a growing category. And the company continued to support me as the business evolved and the needs changed.
Hawthorne: In October 1984, I produced one of the first infomercials to air in the modern era of long-form. In June 1986, I founded the first long-form advertising agency. I was one of 10 co-founders of the National Infomercial Marketing Association (NIMA, now known as the Electronic Retailing Association, or ERA). I authored a best-selling book on infomercial marketing, have written hundreds of articles published in industry trades, and I’ve been a DRTV and direct response thought leader for 30 years. I was the third recipient of ERA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Hawthorne Direct has managed more than 900 different client campaigns and produced more than 400 television commercials — both long- and short-form — and won more than 400 industry awards.
Khubani: I was selected for longevity and TELEBrands’ leadership role in creating, building and maintaining the “As Seen on TV” category at retail.
Liantonio: My first commercial aired in 1979, so I was one of the pioneers of the DR industry. I pride myself on my ability to turn ordinary products into household names — AmberVision sunglasses, the Bedazzler, the George Foreman Grill, Pajama Jeans — classic commercials for classic products. While I am firm believer in the importance of a great script as the blueprint for a great commercial, it is the visual that captures attention, and I have a reputation for creating memorable visuals. If you’re flipping through the channels or fast-forwarding your DVR and you see women tap-dancing on the hood of a car (Auri Gold) or 1,000 lbs. of Sumo wrestlers filling your screen (Furniture Fix), you are compelled to stop. When you are compelled to purchase the product, then I have succeeded. That is the art of DR.
Little: I hope it was because I’ve always tried to be an ambassador for the DRTV industry by promoting its value to the masses. I’ve also believed it was my responsibility to uphold the integrity of our business by always being honest with our customers and giving them the value they deserved.
Somers: Probably because it’s clear that I take direct response very seriously, and I have no intention of going away.
West: We hope it is because we always tried to set a good example for the industry and always put the best interests of our clients first.
Williams: I’m one of the pioneers — starting way back in 1983 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deregulated advertising, resulting in the birth of infomercials and home shopping. I’ve taken a leadership role ever since, working with the legendary DRTV greats (Greg Renker, Ron Popeil, Peter Spiegel, Kevin Harrington, Fern Lee, and hosts of others), as well as introducing brands such as Philips, Microsoft, Toshiba, Mars, DirecTV and Hoover to DRTV. My company, Williams Worldwide, was one of the first to market products internationally, and I helped introduce entrepreneurs around the world to DRTV.
How were you able to maintain success in through all the ups and downs this marketing method has seen over the years?
Bucco: Clearly, it’s a tribute to the management and staff at Katz Direct. My senior management team has been in place for more than 20 years, and I can say with confidence that Ben Buchwald, Steve Diamond and Mike Lum are thought of as leaders with in the DR community. They are respected colleagues to our station clients and trusted liaisons to our agency and advertiser customers as well.
Hawthorne: I’ve been an industry leader and visionary, with focus, ethics, perseverance, an amazingly dedicated and service-minded staff, and smart clients with great products and services.
Khubani: I get excited by the business. Enthusiasm has the amazing ability to drive one to overcome obstacles and the resilience to bounce back when he stumbles and falls.
Liantonio: The market will be capricious at times, but, ultimately, the consumer will always want and need product. DR is a proven method whereby you can immediately discern whether your campaign has success. Sometimes it is instant gratification, and other times it is instant disappointment. Nothing in the world, especially DR, is ever constant. The only thing that is consistent is change — and that is never boring. Talent is important, but persistence is my secret weapon. I always show up and I always bring my A-game. I am passionate about selling products.
Little: I think it’s because I’ve always been a forward, out-of-the-box thinker. I’ve been working live TV shows since the beginning and been involved with infomercials for many years. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to really listen to what my customers are saying and respond to them in a meaningful way. I’ve also worked very hard to diversify my offering of products, ranging from fitness to positive lifestyle.
Somers: Fortunately, with my television career and websites, I have been able to endure the down times of the business. After “Three’s Company,” I starred in “Step by Step” for seven years, as well as “Candid Camera,” “She’s the Sheriff,” “Suzanne,” “The Suzanne Show,” ”Suzanne Somers Breaking Through,” more than a dozen TV and feature movies — plus 20 years of starring in Las Vegas. The more television and personal appearance exposure, the more powerful our brand — it’s the perfect synergy.
West: We always asked our clients one question: “How can we help you be more successful?” We listened, we learned and we provided them what they wanted and needed. We never really thought about making money because we knew that would be a natural byproduct of doing the right things for our clients.
Williams: Maybe because I’m a glutton for punishment! Actually my success is due to my willingness to fail, to learn, and to keep moving forward. I’ve always said that DR is a business for the brave. With DR you know the results of your advertising within minutes/hours of launching a campaign, and you can’t hide from those results. Most advertisers operate in blissful ignorance of the efficacy of their campaigns, assuming that their beautiful creative will translate to sales months later, and blaming other factors if it doesn’t. With DR you can’t gloss over the results. DR keeps me humble because I still face failures every day, whether it’s a media buy that flops, a creative concept that doesn’t resonate, an offer that doesn’t convert or a myriad of other challenges. But I apply the lessons, keep going, and — fortunately — the successes dwarf the failures.
What does it say about the DR marketing industry when major brand players that used to avoid DR are now utilizing it extensively — not only to create sales but also to build brand?
Bucco: It’s all about return on investment (ROI) and as technology changed, the perceptions of DR changed. The advertisers themselves pushed the agencies to explore DR — and the results were evident.
Hawthorne: The DR industry has matured, and brand advertisers are finally getting it. Good advertising should be both memorable and measurable. We can build brands while generating immediate response and make all our advertising investments accountable.
Khubani: It reminds me of the California gold rush. If we would have kept quiet, we could have kept all the gold to ourselves!
Liantonio: Image advertisements are creative and beautiful, but direct response is unlike anything else in that you realize a direct sale based on your commercial. The bigger brands have recognized that our formula works. During the recession, the first budget cut was image advertising. DRTV delivers an ROI, and the world has taken notice.
Little: It’s certainly an important move for branding companies because there are more opportunities for their products or services — something those of us who have worked in DR for many years have always recognized! The one-product hits are fantastic, but the value of branding your company and products is a much better long-term growth area. I didn’t start out as one, but DRTV allowed me to become a brand!
Somers: Major brands that had done really well for many years believed that their way was the best way. Most major retailers were populated by management that did not understand how DR could add incremental dollars to their bottom lines. Once they got it, they all jumped in big time and it paid off. Now, it’s a very important channel for big retail to get to their younger demographic, who no longer go to stores and do all their shopping with fingers on computer keys.
West: It screams, “Direct marketing works and, if done properly, it is cost effective!” Smart companies, big and small, are allocating resources for it in their advertising and promotional budgets.
Williams: Major brands like the tremendous impact of DR marketing, as well as the accountability. DR is an incredibly powerful form of marketing when utilized with expertise. DR fundamentals also underlie online success.
In your professional career or personal life, what have been the two biggest defining moments?
Bucco: In my personal life of course, it’s my marriage and the birth of my son. I believe I have a life well lived and have and will continue to have my work be a part of the fabric of that life. Professionally, being tapped to run Katz Direct was an important moment in my career.
Hawthorne: The night I launched my first infomercial in November 1984, I watched it on a huge satellite dish and then called the call center in Omaha, Neb., to discover we netted hundreds of orders and a 10-to-1 media efficiency ratio (MER). A year later, the product had $60 million in sales. An industry was born.
Another was the first meeting of the NIMA founders in 1990 at Venable in Washington, D.C., hosted by Jeff Knowles. There were 10 fierce competitors sitting at one table creating solidarity to protect and foster this new industry.
Personally, my wife, Laya, and I traveled around the world, visiting countries including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Namibia, South Korea and China, to produce a 55-minute pro bono documentary for World Teach, a program that sends college graduates overseas to teach English and live with the local residents for one year. The completed documentary premiered at the famed Brattle Theater near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., won many awards and is used widely in education. It was a wonderful opportunity to give back.
Khubani: Meeting my remarkable wife, Poonam, and having our three children. Yes, I realize those are technically four moments!
Liantonio: In my personal life, there were three defining moments: the births of my three children. In my business career, it was the moment I recognized our global impact on international culture. Imagine my surprise to see our American commercial airing in China for the first time? That filled me with such a sense of pride. Our infomercials now air throughout the world and sometimes they are so well-known that they are even spoofed. The day Johnny Carson spoofed the show for The Blade, I knew we’d achieved a new level of success. Since then, Chelsea Handler, Perez Hilton and truTV (to name a few) have all taken a stab at spoofing our spots — and I laughed right along with the world.
Little: The first would be my introduction to the infomercial industry at the second NIMA Awards by Earl Greenburg. The second would have to be becoming one of the first two celebrities to ever work on HSN’s live shopping on TV.
Somers: Professionally, being fired from “Three’s Company” for demanding to be paid commensurately with the men. After spending a year feeling sorry for myself, I realized that I had enormous visibility. I used that visibility to reinvent myself and create new businesses. Personally, successfully combining families with Alan Hamel has provided a solid foundation for life and a wonderful and creative group of children and grandchildren. “3-Way Poncho,” which was created by our daughter Leslie Hamel, rolled out nationally with Hampton this fall. It’s a hit!
West: Automating West Corp.’s order-entry system with color terminals that materially improved the phone agent’s ability to “upgrade” sales, which greatly improved clients ROIs.
Also, developing our own proprietary voice response system, which allowed West Corp. to vastly expand our product offerings to clients. This system led to West Corp. becoming the biggest audio/video conferencing company in the world (InterCall), as well as the industry leader in 911 emergency services (Intrado), both wholly owned subsidiaries of West Corp.
Williams: As long as I remember, I’ve detested unfairness and discrimination of any type. Although business was mostly men’s turf in my hometown, my parents did not recognize barriers to what girls and women could achieve, and taught me that I could be whatever I wanted. I started my “career” at age 14, delivering papers in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and breaking barriers by being the first papergirl in town. My customers would call for everyone in their house to “Come see our paper girl!”
Following that same trajectory, I founded my first company when I was 30, working from my kitchen table. In that first year in business, my largest client called me into its office to renegotiate our contract. I entered its boardroom where I met with the CFO and several other execs — all men, all in suits, and all with many more years of business experience — who proceeded to pound on the need to lower our commission or lose their business. Internally, I felt like a little girl, alone and outnumbered. But externally, I stood my ground and explained how my company benefited them and therefore deserved the commissions they paid us. After an hour or so of repeating my explanation in different ways, they conceded and my commission remained unchanged. I almost couldn’t believe it! In that moment, I realized the power of my expertise and of my dedication to superlative service.
In just a few years, the Los Angeles Business Journal honored my company as the largest woman-owned business in Los Angeles. Here’s a shout-out to my mom and dad — and to Peter Spiegel, my partner in both business and life, for their inspiration and love!
What’s the most significant accomplishment in your Hall of Fame career?
Bucco: Building Katz Direct into a successful, highly functioning company that remains relevant today. When I took charge of the group, its future was uncertain and its success far from assured. I’m proud to have played an integral role in its development and I am proud of the imprint our team has had on the industry.
Hawthorne: Creating a company that has thrived for 28 years and provided a supportive work environment, friendship, respect, creative and professional challenges and personal growth for hundreds of fine team members.
Khubani: Surviving bankruptcy — it’s the toughest thing I’ve lived through, yet the best thing that ever happened because of the enormous strength and insight it gave me.
Liantonio: The year we received awards for the best short-form commercial (Contour Pillow) and the best long-form infomercial (Smart Mop) were significantly satisfying from an artist’s perspective, because our hard work and creativity were acknowledged by industry peers I greatly admire. My inner saleswoman, however, enjoyed the moment I realized my products were selling on the retail shelves of every drugstore and department store. Walking down the aisles — seeing “As Seen on TV” lining the shelves — made me feel like, “Yes! I have arrived.” My commercial campaign catapulted enough sales to make it, first, a household name and, second, a viable, tangible product on a shelf. It was very rewarding, especially since retail was initially our competition. But we broke down the barriers in order to give our clients success on multiple levels. Ultimately, my greatest accomplishment is triumphing on behalf of the client.
Little: It’s the opportunity to work with some amazing DR companies, as well as having more than seven successful infomercial shows. And, of course, there is the true blessing of being an early pioneer in the world of live shopping channels.
Somers: I could list the hundreds of products we have created or licensed, but the fact that I have actually survived in this roller coaster business is easily my most significant accomplishment.
West: We went to work every day, thinking about what we could do to help our clients be more successful. We were always truthful, admitted our mistakes, made things right with the customer and did whatever possible to see the same problem did not occur again. We were obsessed with doing things right, and to this very day, that is still the culture at West Corp.
Williams: My most significant accomplishment is that I am great at building “dream teams.” I have a talent for finding and cultivating exceptional talent. It’s very gratifying to me to see how many industry leaders were on my team, from those who have gone on to start their own businesses — Michelle Cardinal, Nancy Lazkani, Gerald Bagg, Renee Young, Lisa Bodlak, Robin Behar, Alissa Stakgold — to those who are running leading agencies — Ruben Hernandez — to my international friends —Tee Kuboki, Denise Graham, Janie Peace — to my current dream team at Ideal Living. I actually don’t know how I’ve been so fortunate to touch so many lives.
What’s most important to me is that I try to live my life with a feeling of service — service to my team members, to my clients, to my partners. And part of that service is also to help those less fortunate. Because of my success over the years, I’ve been able to help build hospitals in India that provide completely free medical care to villagers who otherwise would have no care at all. I’ve personally visited these hospitals and seen the dramatic impact they have in their regions — 500 people a day line up to receive state-of-the-art medical care at no charge. We also support a free school for girls. In an area where girls seldom have the opportunity to receive even rudimentary education, the school teaches hundreds of girls from first grade through college and has received the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Excellence. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to make a difference in this way.
What other memorable accomplishments stand out in your career?
Bucco: I imagine one day I will be better at looking back and reminiscing about the memorable accomplishments of my career. Now, though, my attention is on today’s client calls and tomorrow’s avails, as I have yet to slow down. I am proud of that too.
Hawthorne: Authoring my book and hundreds of published articles; speaking all over the world at dozens of conferences; advocating the benefits of DRTV wherever I travel. Mentoring dozens of great employees, some of whom went off to create strong competing companies. Being honored by ERA with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Bringing DRTV to scores of brand advertisers.
Likely the most rewarding accomplishment, though, has been joining forces with my daughter, Jessica Hawthorne-Castro. In 2007, Jessica, who holds an MBA and is a former accomplished television literary agent with William Morris Endeavor Agency, joined Hawthorne Direct to help further manage and grow the company. Jessica joined as an account executive, and worked her way up the corporate ladder. Today, she represents the next generation of Hawthorne Direct and serves as our Chief Operating Officer.
Khubani: How about some memorable moments instead: opening my first mail order from my first ad placed in the National Enquirer in 1983; walking into Herman’s Sporting Goods and watching a consumer buy a pair of AmberVision sunglasses in 1989; and getting a cost-per-order (CPO) of 60 cents the first weekend our spot tested for the Whisper 2000 in 1990.
Liantonio: I love trying new things and breaking old rules. We were one of the first production companies to use female voiceovers successfully. (The mistaken “belief” was while most women purchase DR products, they only buy from male “voices.”)
I never accept “can’t.” I am a “can do” person, so I problem solve in order to get it done. But not just get it done — get it done right. Once I had to direct an infomercial in Korea without knowing or understanding the language! That was certainly challenging, but I hired a translator and made it work. Another time, I had to rely on my Spanish-speaking skills to direct an infomercial in Mexico City! When I shot the Amish Fireplace, we discovered the Amish are forbidden to look at the camera, so we got creative with camera angles — and it is by far one of my most memorable production experiences, because it represents our think-outside-the-box mentality. We create solutions at Concepts TV, and I’m very proud of that.
Little: I’ll never forget my first infomercial hit with Mike Levey and “Amazing Discoveries.” Mike was incredibly talented. And, of course, there are my Gazelle shows with Fitness Quest.
Somers: When it comes to marketing, I believe getting there first, creating a large footprint, and supporting it with massive amounts of promotion is the only way to be heard. Last fall, I did more than 200 interviews to support the marketing of my 24th book, “I’m Too Young for This.” It became an instant New York Times bestseller, as have 13 of my other titles. I consider massive promotion in launching a DR product vital to its success. It is as important as the product itself. It can be the lifeblood of DR. Before we push “go,” we plan, plan, plan! It’s our way of “going to war.”
West: Early on, we realized that to be successful on a large scale, we had to surround ourselves with the most qualified talent possible. Therefore, we hired the best talent money could buy, paid them very well, provided key people with an ownership position in the company and insisted they lived and breathed the “West Way of Doing Things” at all times. ■