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Giving ’Em the Business: 25th Anniversary Edition

Usually in a Giving ’Em the Business feature, we compile funny stories from colleagues in the DR industry. In this issue, however, we wanted to do something a bit different. As this issue of the magazine celebrates ERA’s 25th Anniversary, we asked DR professionals about the history of the industry and association—what it was like at the beginning, how ERA has helped them, and what has changed. They came through with great tales and comments. So sit back, read, and enjoy. We’ll be sure to make you laugh again in this space later in the year.

The Early Days
A number of DR pros referred to the early days of DR as “the Wild West”—but that was because it was new, and no one really knew at that time where it would go and what form it would take.

“The late 1970s to early ’80s—the early days of the DR industry—did not include infomercials. There were only two-minute and one-minute DRTV spots. We only used male voiceovers. QVC was just beginning. We sold Commodore computers; we sold phones when you were first able to own your own phone. Retailers were the competition.

Many potential clients refused to shoot commercials for TV because they didn’t want to anger the retailers that sold their products in the stores. Today, every retailer sees DRTV as an integral part of a successful campaign. Cable TV was in its infancy, and suddenly there was a plethora of airtime available on new networks like WTBS and CNN. There was no Weather Channel. All of our spots were aired during remnant run of the station times.”

–Collette Liantonio
President, Concepts TV Productions

“There was a lot of excitement around the business; most of the companies were pretty new at it. We were kind of fumbling along and making it up as we went. It was so technologically stunted compared to how it is now; orders would come in on mag tapes. Didi Seven became this huge hit for Interwood, and Rob [Woodroofe] got the results in by fax. He got up on his desk and started dancing. It was a lot of fun.”

–Patty Booth
President, Thane Direct Canada

“My partner and I launched a two-hour infomercial campaign in the fall of 1984, right after the Reagan Administration lifted [restrictions on] the length of time for a commercial. We tested the infomercial on local cable networks and found the return to be profitable, but small-potatoes. The word ‘infomercial’ did not exist in those days, and national cable infomercial airtime did not exist.

However, The Nashville Network went black from 3:00 to 9:00 a.m., Monday through Sunday, and had coverage of 22 million homes. We needed that exposure. We asked them if we could purchase this airtime; they were stunned, but willing. We placed the test and discovered in less than a 24-hour period that we were going to make millions. Soon, we bought an entire eight-hour block on TNN. Our client became a millionaire, and my partner and I cashed in, as well.”

–Nancy Marcum
Founder and CEO, Marcum Media

Dave Del Dotto's Cash Flow System, IMS' Sam Catanese, and Cher in a spot for Lori Davis Hair Spray. [1]

Dave Del Dotto’s Cash Flow System, IMS’ Sam Catanese, and Cher in a spot for Lori Davis Hair Spray.

My First Big Hit

Everyone remembers their first—in this case, their first big break or product in the DR industry.

“My very first infomercial was called Blueprint for Success in Your Own Business, back in the mid-’80s. It offered a home-study course that I had previously written and sold through mail order and by giving public seminars. We made $100,000 in our first TV airing, and I remember being in disbelief at that result. We quickly gave up on the seminar business and moved full-steam into the infomercial business. I laughed out loud into my pillow every night, because at that time, it seemed like the business equivalent of winning the lottery.”

–Richard Stacey
President and CEO,
Northern Response International Ltd.

“I got a call from one of our former interns who was working for the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. The creative director was moonlighting and wanted a cheap crew to shoot commercials that weekend. It was for Ronco, and it began an eight-year relationship with Ron Popeil. The creative director was long gone, but Ron and I worked on many spots and infomercials over the years.”

–Packy McFarland
Owner, Real to Reel Productions

“The first product I ever tried on DRTV was a meal-replacement diet program called Dick Gregory’s Bahamian Diet. At the time, Dick Gregory was a well-known personality. He started as a stand-up comic, became a civil rights activist, and later [was] an advocate for obese men and women. The show was a modest success—about $15 million in sales in the first year. But as I was working out of my apartment part-time with one assistant, it was a big success for me.”

–Peter Spiegel
Founder and CEO, Ideal Living, LLC

“I was working with several Hair Club for Men franchisees, and their business had been struggling. I was able to help them turn their businesses around by lowering their cost-per-sale significantly through more efficient media buying. The parent company was also struggling, so the franchisees introduced me to Sy Sperling, who was not only the Hair Club president, but ‘also a client.’ Working closely with Sy, we were able to duplicate the success we had with the franchisees on a national basis, and their company became extremely profitable.”

–Peter Koeppel
Founder and President, Koeppel Direct

ERA Love
ERA has helped thousands build careers in DR, especially as the industry has changed. Here, they share the love.

“We were shooting from the hip! We knew the pieces we needed, but not how to put it all together. If not for the ERA shows, where we could talk to everyone and weigh our options, we might not have ended up being able to handle calls, fulfill orders, and buy much of our media in our first couple of years. Also, the shows became real relationship-builders that strengthened our company for the tough times to come.”

–Jon Congdon
President, Cofounder, and
Chief Marketing Officer, Beachbody

“John Cabrinha (my business partner) and I have been involved with what is now ERA since its inception. We went to the very first National Infomercial Marketing Association meeting in Washington, D.C., and have been very involved ever since. It has helped us to be recognized in the industry, provided learning opportunities, and has helped us network. We have traveled the world with ERA, and have learned how the industry works from these various meetings. We know almost everyone in the industry, and this all goes back to our relationship with the organization—helping it to grow, the industry to grow, our company to grow, and our own personal growth.”

–Dan Danielson
Co-Chairman, Mercury Media

“ERA brought much-needed oversight to the industry. I was happy to be a board member for three years. ERA provides advocacy and self-regulation, while helping to legitimize our industry on a variety of levels. I’m thankful for the various conferences and learning opportunities that the ERA has provided over the years. It allows us to peer-review each other, as well as learn from the latest technologies.”

–Rick Cesari
Founder, Partner, and CEO;
Cesari Direct

“[HSN executive and early ERA chairman] Earl Greenburg was one of the groundbreaking people in my career. He wanted to lose some weight, and told me, ‘I can have Jake [Steinfield, of Body by Jake] exercise with me, or I can have you exercise with me—and I want you.’ I asked Earl how much he wanted to pay, and he said, ‘Nothing. I graduated from Wharton Business School and I know everything about DRTV. If you work out with me every day, I will impart to you everything I know about the business.’ And it was worth it.”

–Tony Little
“America’s Personal Trainer”

“ERA has been critical to our success and longevity due to their great efforts to set standards, self-police our industry, and keep us in front of FTC issues and challenges.”

–Barbara L. Kerry
Chairman and CEO,
Script to Screen, Inc.

“Formalizing the ERA guidelines allowed the straight-shooters to stay successful while deterring folks from making outrageous claims. The ERA has helped clean up DRTV and allowed consumers to have a higher level of confidence in our products. That helps everyone.”

–Packy McFarland
Owner, Real to Reel Productions

“I have been a passionate member of this industry since the NIMA days. The association has always put the member first, leading the way to protect marketers’ rights via passionate governmental advocacy. The association legitimized the ‘Wild West,’ discombobulated gold rush of the late ’80s/early ’90s, and has been a rock of support during challenging times such as the Gulf War and the financial crisis of 2008. ERA provides a stable, credible resource that’s dedicated to giving members the very best education, networking, and advocacy support to help grow and enhance business. And thanks to its tireless efforts, the industry is seen as a hallmark example of good business practices by the FTC and demanding consumers.”

–Elliott Segal
Senior Vice President, Program Development, Guthy-Renker, LLC

“Considering that my career in the direct-to-consumer industry began way before ERA was formed, I feel lucky that I came out unscathed in terms of claims, complaints, and lawsuits. Many companies really pushed the envelope in terms of demonstrations, offers, etc. As a result, many got in trouble with state attorneys and eventually, the federal government.

Around 1990, the Feds finally called some of the leaders of the industry—Tom Fenton, my mentor, Tim Hawthorne, Jeff Knowles, and Nancy Marcum, among others—and told them that they needed to put together a self-governing association that created guidelines and restrictions for what could and could not be said or claimed. ERA was born out of this, and to this day, [it] has legitimized what we all do—to the government as well as people the world over.

If it wasn’t for ERA, there wouldn’t be a DRTV industry. They’ve paved the way and maintained a strong voice on Capitol Hill, created [the Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program] to weed out the bad apples, and continued to morph and expand all over the world to keep up with the changing times. ERA has been instrumental in helping me in our industry in every way possible.”

–Jeff Meltzer
Owner and President,
Meltzer Media Productions

Dave Del Dotto's Cash Flow System, IMS' Sam Catanese, and Cher in a spot for Lori Davis Hair Spray. [1]

Dave Del Dotto’s Cash Flow System, IMS’ Sam Catanese, and Cher in a spot for Lori Davis Hair Spray.

The DR field has changed in many ways over the past 25 years, and stayed the same in others.

“There has been dramatic change in our industry over the years, both in the advancement of production technologies and in the tremendous analytic capabilities that help us measure success. Then you consider the digital space, and DR really is a whole new world. I don’t think I could still be in this business if we had to edit like we did 25 years ago. What has not changed about DR is the way you can still take a product that is virtually unknown and make it a household name.”

–Barbara L. Kerry
Chairman and CEO,
Script to Screen, Inc.

“In the early 1990s, we were in the ‘Get’ business, meaning, ‘Get in to new products fast, get as much revenue per customer, get as many sales as possible, and get out.’ Many of us were very good at the ‘Get’ model.

Today, we are in the ‘Give’ business, meaning we ‘Give the customer quality products, great value, and a fabulous customer experience.’ In the ‘Give’ model, you actually build the foundation for brands. When you ‘Give’ to consumers, they will respond by purchasing your products.”

–Anand “Andy” Khubani
Chairman and CEO,
IdeaVillage Products Corp.

“Everything is so much faster. The customer service is so much better, and the quality of the items we’re selling is so much better. Products or brands are more of a business within the company, so once we find a product that does well on TV and sell it at retail, we can sell it to distributors in Japan and Brazil and all around the world. We are a new era of being able to delight customers. It’s an exciting time, but it’s a challenging time, too.”

–Patty Booth
President, Thane Direct Canada

“The migration on the part of the consumer to the Internet and e-commerce has certainly brought about a sea of change. The old attribution model has eroded, and marketers and agencies are scrambling to figure out the cause and effect of media airings and how they impact lead generation and purchase behavior. Direct marketers are acting more like brand marketers, and vice versa. The lines have definitely been blurred.

However, throughout it all, telephony has been a mainstay. The fact is, when people are spending any reasonable amount of money, oftentimes, they want to talk to somebody.”

–James Diorio
CEO, Dial 800

“You have to move with the technology. Long-form is suffering because of so many people are using their laptops to watch TV and skip the commercials. The great DR companies are diversifying onto the Web and online video, but it’s still television that drives the product. It’s the only thing that drives you to a site to order.”

–Tony Little
“America’s Personal Trainer”

The Career Epiphany
For many, there was a specific time when they knew DR was going to be their career.

“There is nothing like the adrenaline rush of working tirelessly to realize a vision and then seeing measurable results of success. This affirmation is like nothing else. Once you get this in your blood, you are hooked. Those early successes—Proactiv, Perfect Smile, Perfect Abs, Power Rider, Winsor Pilates—were pure fuel. Creating and delivering products that really improve people’s lives is tremendously rewarding.”

–Elliott Segal
Senior Vice President, Program Development, Guthy-Renker, LLC

“I had worked in more traditional advertising before entering the DR industry, and I was disturbed by how brand agencies seemed more interested in winning awards than generating results. I was always interested in data and analytics, so when I started managing my first DRTV campaign, I was immediately attracted to the industry, because I now had the ability to track and optimize results and measure ROI.”

–Peter Koeppel
Founder and President,
Koeppel Direct

Jack Lalanne juices with Mike Levey, Ronco's, Ron Popeil, and Greg Renker of Guthy-Renker. [2]

Jack Lalanne juices with Mike Levey, Ronco’s, Ron Popeil, and Greg Renker of Guthy-Renker.

DR Delivers Surprises
No matter how long you’ve been in the field, DR still holds a lot of surprises and excitement.

“Every day, I receive a couple of calls from advertisers who have a new product or service they want to launch. That’s exciting to me, and keeps the surprises coming. I get to be in the dog food business one minute, and then later that day, I’m talking with the latest new fitness-related marketer, and tomorrow it’s the newest skincare solution, and then the hottest new kitchen product. I never know which one is going to be the next George Foreman Grill or the next P90X, so I treat them all as if they will be the home-run hit of 2016.”

–Jack King
President, Celeb Brokers

“Consumer behavior interests me the most. It is so much fun to measure the results of various campaigns and analyze the product offer, the messaging in the commercial, the website color scheme, the images used, and analyzing who your target demographic is on your various social media channels.”

–Lindsey Carnett
CEO and President,
Marketing Maven

“What’s exciting? That someone, somewhere, is working on a new idea on how to not only market their services, but also to reach the consumer [with] a less expensive method and a more defined manner. Information on a potential customer can now be refined, calculated, and sourced to prevent the seller from reaching the wrong buyer, segregating only the potential users of their product, which saves money and increases profits.”

–Hal Altman
President and CEO, Motivational
Fulfillment & Logistics Services

“I am always surprised and excited about the types of products and services that are invented and created by the modern-day Thomas Edisons. Since two strong verticals I work in are health and beauty, I am constantly amazed at the new types of ingredients being used in products that can have amazing effects on people’s health and well-being in their everyday lives. It still excites me to see the clinicals and the before-and-after photos, as well as to read the back stories of how products were developed.”

–Ava Seavey
Founder and President,
Avalanche Creative Services

“In our business, you never know what the next phone call will be. We have seen hundreds of new products and campaigns. Within the company, we often laugh and comment, ‘You never know what the next hit will be.’ We have learned that we can’t pick ’em!”

–Joel Crannell
Vice President, Sales,
Moulton Logistics Management

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning journalist and author of the book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box. Reach her at www.wojosworld.com.