Remembering Billy Mays: 1958-20091 Jul, 2009 By: Thomas Haire Response
Reports of Mays' death hit the DR industry hard. Long-time DR leader and personal friend A.J. Khubani, founder and CEO of Fairfield, N.J.-based TELEBrands, released a statement on June 28 that seemed to sum the thoughts of many of those contacted by Response in the hours following the news.
Two industry legends discuss the ever-important pitch, as Billy Mays and Tim Hawthorne work together on an OxiClean Toss-N-Go detergent ball spot with co-host Shelli Sanders.
"I am in a state of disbelief. Billy Mays was always a terrific and unique individual, both personally and professionally. He was a wonderful human being and a true family man," Khubani says. "His innovative role and impact on the growth and wide acceptance of direct response television cannot be overestimated or easily replaced; he was truly one of a kind."
Fellow DRTV legend Tony Little was also stunned by the news. "Billy Mays was a giant in our industry," Little tells Response. "But to me, it was how Billy lived his life that was most important — how he loved his family, how he worked so hard to achieve his tremendous success. In selling, you have to sell yourself first, and Billy did that incredibly well. Of course, people can sense the real thing, and his fans knew that Billy stood behind everything he sold. In this way, Billy was more than the ultimate salesman — he was a powerfully positive force in our industry, an awesome and larger-than-life ambassador."
Born in McKees Rocks, Pa., on July 20, 1958, and reared in Pittsburgh, Mays' personality — boisterous and gregarious on-air; kind, gentle and humble off-air — was the key in his rise from an Atlantic City boardwalk salesman into the ultimate TV pitchman, eventually pitching dozens of hit products via DRTV.
John Abdo and Billy Mays both earned "Best Male Presenter" ERA Awards earlier this decade.
"I was fortunate because I was one of the last pitchmen working on TV, or live, to be trained on the boardwalks in Atlantic City," Mays told Response in a December 2001 profile interview at the peak of the OxiClean craze (see The Man Behind the 'Two Thumbs Up' for a complete reprint of that story). "I met all of the old pitchmen and learned about the art of pitching."
He began on the boardwalk, selling $10 "Amazing Washomatiks" and gained notoriety in live pitchman circles. But it was not until the mid-1990s that a chance meeting at a home show with Orange Glo creator Max Appel that Mays got his big break. By 1996, Appel had convinced Mays to give TV a try, pitching Orange Glo wood cleaner and polish on the Home Shopping Network (HSN).
"We were watching the screen, and all of a sudden it was a sellout and HSN was asking us for more," Appel told Response in 2001 of the initial appearance, in which Mays sold more than 6,000 bottles of product. "It was the first time we were able to reach millions of people and it was astonishing for a small company like ours."
More astonishing moments were to come for the Appel family, who called on Mays again and again to pitch their product lines, which grew to include OxiClean, Kaboom and other cleaning products. Eventually, the Orange Glo business was purchased for $325 million by Church & Dwight Co. Inc., in 2006. Through it all, Mays remained the products' lead pitchman.
Sean Fay, president and CEO at Seattle-based Envision Response, was a partner at Cesari Response Television when the agency worked on the initial OxiClean ad. "I was truly blessed to be approached by Joel and Max Appel to produce their first OxiClean infomercial," he tells Response. "During this project, I became friends with Billy on that shoot, even negotiating the first production contract between him and the Appels. He trusted me, and I believed in him. He wasn't so confident on that first shoot, but when we jammed the 'Billy Cam' in his face, he came alive."
Nancy Lazkani, CEO and founder of Van Nuys, Calif.-based Icon Media Direct — long-time media agency for the Orange Glo brands — was also touched by the loss of Mays. "I am deeply saddened by this shocking news," she tells Response. "I've worked with Billy for 10 great years, and he will be missed. His positive outlook on life, his talent and unique personality will never be replaced."