I once had a Ford Festiva I wanted to sell, so I went the usual route of posting classifieds, but it didn’t sell,” relates pitchman extraordinaire Marc Gill. Frustrated, the spokesman—a fixture in DRTV commercials and infomercials—took to the path that started his sales career: He went door-to-door hawking the used car. “In two hours, I had a check,” he beams, with his signature ear-to-ear grin.
When considering whether to hire a conventional TV or film celebrity for a direct marketing campaign versus a professional pitchperson, this kind of story makes the case for the latter. Why? They know how to sell.
While Hollywood stars have the advantage of being channel-stoppers, they are most effective when “they are really invested and the product is something they are eating, breathing, and sleeping,” says Concepts TV CEO Collette Liantonio. The legendary producer has worked with almost every major pitch pro and a plethora of celebrity talent.
Liantonio recounts how one starlet being paid six figures showed up on set for a haircare extension product and announced, “I’m not wearing that.” In contrast, “A professional pitchperson shows up ready, willing, and able,” Liantonio says. “They know how to translate the message into their own words and convey genuineness.”
Though they might not have the same cachet as a Hollywood celebrity, unabashed enthusiasm for the task at hand helps carry pro pitchpersons over the credibility hump and win audiences over. But eagerness alone doesn’t win; there’s far more to it. “I subscribe to the science of the pitch,” Gill says, “and that means weighing every element, including timing, demos, and sincerity. I’ve been lucky and worked with some of the best people in the business. They come up with angles I would never have.”
The importance of collaboration is a sentiment echoed by Susan Crenshaw, a veteran of dozens of commercials and infomercials. “Over time, you know what is required to make a shoot work,” she says. “Your job is to understand what is going on when you are shooting, and to ‘get’ what is required to make a sale work. It isn’t just about reading a teleprompter, it’s about being able to look through the lens and reach each person on the other side—to feel you know them, like them, and can get them excited about what it is you’re saying.”
Crenshaw’s path to DRTV has included news and lifestyle anchor positions, and host roles on programs appearing on cable networks such as Discovery, Lifetime, and HGTV. While she acknowledges she didn’t hone her craft in a convention hall like Gill—for whom she confesses great admiration—her experience from thousands of hours in front of a camera makes her at-ease as a brand ambassador. “The key is to be believable—to make a connection with the audience,” she says.
Gill agrees: “I’m an everyman guy you might want to have a beer or grill a steak with,” he laughs. “I don’t make people cringe; I’m relatable.” And he’s right.
In DRTV, success often means having the ability to naturally think on your feet even as a lens is pointed at you and the time on set is the equivalent of a taxi’s meter ticking. “A good pitchperson will help save money while you’re shooting,” Crenshaw says. “They know what is up on both sides of the camera, and will collaborate to get what is needed in the can.”
It also means having the innate ability to compress a pitch, sometimes by tiny increments. “I can ask Marc to shave off a second, and he’ll nail it,” Liantonio offers as an example. A need to be creative on the fly is something Crenshaw affirms: “Some of the best selling moments are improvised. They happen when there is trust and respect for every person and position on the set, and come from an experienced cast and crew working together. I think it happens a lot on DRTV shoots, because we all know each other, and know our jobs. We help each other get there. It is thrilling when it works.”
Beyond such happy accidents, good on-air talents possess an intimate understanding of how to drive consumers to get up off their couches and get out their credit cards. Like comedians who have spent years on the club circuit and then suddenly appear (at least to the public eye) as overnight sensations, these spokespeople have honed their skills over years of endeavor.
And that’s why advertisers poised to write a celebrity a generous check should remain open-minded about their options. As Liantonio puts it, “A celebrity may help a marketer open doors, but a seasoned pitchperson knows how to close the sale.”