While many direct response businesses are concentrated in and around America’s traditional media and broadcast hubs, New York City and Los Angeles, there are other hotbeds of activity throughout the country. And people are often surprised at the number of successful DR marketers and support businesses based in the great state of Maine.
Maine has been a center for direct response television for almost as long as DRTV has been an advertising option. I traveled there recently to find out more about the companies that contribute their expertise to DR initiatives from headquarters in “Vacationland.” It was my first trip to the bucolic state, and it won’t be my last.
The Ashes of Talk America
Portland, Maine, was home to early industry giant Talk America, a fully integrated marketer that launched in 1991 and quickly grew to be a $100 million company on the strength of spots and infomercials pitching Protein Power, Colon Cleanse, and other remedies. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and disbanded, releasing hundreds of seasoned marketers, call center employees, and media buyers into the job market.
“As legend has it, Talk America and [agency] Media Power evolved and [became] a springboard for people learning the business from the product side or agency side or call-center side—and then going off and starting their own call center or running their own products,” says Scott Badger, founder and CEO of marketing management firms KPI Direct and Rivet Digital Marketing in Portland.
“There was a lot of splintering off from Talk America,” confirms Mike Frautten, CFO of Great Falls Marketing, an inbound call specialist based in Auburn, Maine. “The company built a DR culture here. They had 700 or 800 people at one point, and produced a lot of great agents and managers who really know how to sell.”
“[Talk America helped] people learn what works and what doesn’t, much like what we are doing with the various mediums and different DR platforms now,” adds Jeff Small, founder and CEO of Strategic Media, a native of Maine.
“It’s really interesting how one company—Talk America—can change the industry in a state,” says Tony Ricciardi, president and cofounder of Portland-based ListenTrust. “I got here when Talk America was ending, and a lot of entrepreneurs coming out of it started their own businesses based on what they learned [there].”
Chris Homer, CEO of Dr. Newton’s Naturals in Westbrook, Maine, was one of those entrepreneurs. “I came from upstate New York for an opportunity with Talk America and stayed,” he says. “I was learning the direct response business, and there just seemed to be a lot of opportunity.”
Maine also had the advantage of an advanced telecom infrastructure; it was an early hub for digital and fiber-optic communications thanks to the Strategic Air Command’s defense installations. That, in turn, helped encourage large telephone companies, big banks, and catalog companies to set up shop in the state.
“Direct response came in right after that and really exploded,” says Jason Levesque, CEO of Argo Marketing Group, which is headquartered in Lewiston. “A lot of companies piggybacked off the infrastructure that the government produced. [Maine] had the oldest telephony infrastructure in the country, and direct response was a side effect.”
But Talk America produced the expertise. “In the ashes of that $100 million company were a lot of people who understood the industry—fulfillment providers, agencies, and call centers,” says Craig Lennon, director of business development for Ship-Right Solutions, a fulfillment and order management company based in South Portland.
Service with a Smile
Mainers have a reputation for being pleasant and well-spoken, making them ideal for careers in sales and service. “Everyone is very friendly, and it lends itself to a customer service-oriented atmosphere,” Levesque says. “Our average employee is 34, and nationwide, you’re looking at 24 to 27. People in the customer contact industry really look at this as a career. If you want a mature, dedicated workforce that’s easily trainable, look here.”
Such experience can produce better sell-through in DR. “We have a history with a soft offer or salesmanship,” Frautten says. “A lot of managers have been in the business for 15 years. Coming to a center like ours in Maine, you are going to get a level of salesmanship you are not going to get elsewhere.”
Maine’s traditional industries such as paper and lumber have seen lean times in recent decades, making it easy to staff a DR business. “It’s perfect to have this type of business in Maine, because there’s not a ton of great-paying jobs here,” Frautten says. “We don’t have any problems hiring good people. And they can write their own paychecks, since we pay on performance.”
Many young people come to Maine looking for seasonal employment, however. “They are drawn to summer-type jobs that support tourism,” Homer says. “A business like ours [is] looking for employees year-round, and that can really be a challenge.”
Trade-Offs for Transplants
The weather in Maine can be treacherous; new residents should be prepared to cope with long, snowy winters. And while the state is home to lots of veteran DR businesses, its geography can present minor problems.
“One of the challenges would definitely be access to bigger companies,” Small says. “It has become less of a problem over the years with teleconferencing, but a trip to L.A. is not something I can do in a day. Raising a family here is fantastic, but in terms of getting out and meeting clients, it’s a bit more difficult.”
Offering speedy fulfillment on large products or Chinese-made goods can also be difficult in the northeast corner of the country, Lennon notes. “However, a lot of our dietary supplement, skin, and health and beauty clients have very small items, so there’s no disadvantage.”
Two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in the Eastern time zone, giving call centers and fulfillment houses an edge. Labor and other costs tend to be low, too, and technology is helping shrink Maine’s geographic issues.
“We’re in such a virtual world,” says Ricciardi, a Maine transplant. “We’ve been able to seek out opportunities and optimize them; we were able to do that in Mexico. A lot of companies outsource expertise, and more people are seeking out a lifestyle. The freedom to work where you want to work is no longer a barrier.”
While the state is a melting pot of ethnicities and a tourist destination, “There’s a certain ethic that’s unique to Maine,” says Bill Southwick, vice president of sales for OrderLogix, a DR software provider based in Scarborough, Maine. “A lot of times, you get a ‘This is Home’ kind of culture.”
“Maine has a pace of life that’s different than Los Angeles,” Small adds. “As a business owner, the cost of doing business is less, too. There are a variety of benefits, and for me, quality of life is at the top of the list. It’s clean, and the people are friendly, happy, and nice. It’s safe. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
“Bottom line: Maine has been a great place for entrepreneurs in the DR industry to build their businesses, give back to their communities, and also raise their families in a setting that is hard to match anywhere,” Badger says.
“It’s a great place to live,” Levesque agrees. “It’s called Vacationland for a reason.”
Jim Perrus is ERA’s vice president, member relations. He can be reached at (703) 841-1751.