Remembering Billy Mays: 1958-20091 Jul, 2009 By: Thomas Haire Response
The article below originally ran in the December 2001 edition of Response.
The Man Behind the 'Two Thumbs Up'
By Thomas Haire
He incites people to drag out buckets and mops with his "two thumbs up" gestures, military salutes and repetitive sayings like, "Long live your laundry." He likes the hard sell and says that when he veers away from it, sales tend to fall off.
The man behind Orange Glo's infomercials and spots is Billy Mays, a mild-mannered guy with a great personality who got his start selling $10 "Amazing Washomatiks" on Atlantic City's boardwalk. He calls that early experience — which later led to state fairs and home shows — tough but invaluable, joking that most of the potential customers were broke, and if you "could sell to them, you can sell to anyone."
As one of the last pitchmen to learn the ropes on that boardwalk, Mays (a.k.a., "Bucket Billy") attributes his recently earned, near-celebrity status to simply being in the right place at the right time. That place, he says, was at a home show where he and Max Appel were going head-to-head for the crowd's attention: Appel with his Orange Glo wood cleaner and Mays with his Washomatik.
Deep in the throes of pitching, Appel's microphone cut out, leaving him to yell above the crowd for attention — something that doesn't work in a busy venue like a home show. Mays offered him a spare and a relationship developed in the years that followed. Often bumping into one another on the road, the pair became friends and when Appel got the opportunity to sell his wares on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) in 1996, Appel called on Mays to see if he might want to test out his pitching skills on TV.
At the time, Mays says he was already using and liking the Orange Glo products. "We kept in touch and saw each other at shows," says Mays, who continued working state fairs and home shows while also helping to produce, write and pitch for Orange Glo's infomercials and spots. "It went really well, and we just built the business from there. It wasn't like I ever was asked to be a national spokesperson for the company, which was really small at the time. But I just kind of ran with it and here I am."
Mays, who plays a key role in the development of infomercials and spots — from writing to producing to finding good testimonials — attributes much of Orange Glo's success in the past couple years to good products, hard work both on and off the air, and a simple selling formula that works. "It's never fancy," says Mays. "In fact, when we get fancy, it gets away from what we really do."
Mays has known about hard work and steering clear of "fancy" since a young age, when a friend named Mike Jones helped guide him into a job selling Washomatiks at various national venues. Joining up with the Appels opened a new door of opportunity for Mays, who had never been on TV before and who has since done infomercials for other companies.
"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," says Mays. "I met all of the old pitchmen and learned the art of pitching." He also learned that pitching wasn't about the product, but about "working" the crowd and selling yourself. The experienced pitchmen took Mays under their wings and showed him how to hone that skill to perfection.
"There were rough days, but they made me a stronger pitchman," says Mays. "A lot of people don't know when they break into this business, nobody ever learned it that way and people still never get it. I got a good education."
Fast forward to 1996, the first time Mays provided the face and voice behind that 6,000-bottle sale on HSN. Unbeknownst to him at the time, even bigger successes were on the horizon. Just a year later, when Appel introduced the world to OxiClean, the pair's success levels reached unforeseen heights. "He asked me to sell this product on HSN, so I just wrote up a pitch and it sold out within a matter of minutes," recalls Mays. "People took to it right away and raved about it because of its versatility."
Through it all, Mays has stayed true to his school-of-hard-knocks education on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and calls DRTV "just another place to sell a product." Hard selling tends to work best, he says, and other approaches rarely produce the same results that his energized, in-your-face demonstrations do.
"We've tried other things, but we always end up back where we started: the hard sell with integrity," says Mays. "The real key is to let the product be the show — that's what works. You also have to be creative and ahead of everyone else."
Looking ahead, Mays plans to put those good words of advice to use at Mays Promotions Inc., his 2-year-old firm that produces DRTV shows from concept to completion. "I want to produce and write shows and get credit as being a viable DRTV production company," says Mays.
At the same time, Mays will continue to serve as pitchman for Orange Glo, thus furthering a relationship that he and Appel both call serendipitous in nature, and one that has led both men to great success over the past few years.
"It's actually funny how it all started by just being in the right place at the right time," says Mays. "Go figure."