Billy Mays Told Me These Four Secrets to His Success
Master your marketing approach with his four C's
When it comes to names most associated with the ‘As Seen on TV’ business, there is one that clearly stands above the rest: Billy Mays. He was so iconic that he still gets mentioned in popular culture today. (There’s even a South Park episode about him!)
Unlike Ron Popeil (whom I wrote about in June), Billy did not live long enough to write his memoirs and pass on his secrets to the world. However, in 2008, I did have a chance to interview him and ask for a few words of wisdom. This week, I’m going to share with you what he said.
I assume everyone reading this newsletter knows who Billy Mays was. Just in case you aren’t familiar with his work, below are the two of his most famous commercials. Even if you’ve seen them before, feel free to take a moment and enjoy the master at work!
One more thing before I get to the insights from the interview. Because I knew Billy personally, I feel I have to mention again that he was one of the best people I ever met in this business. During my first year in the industry, when I was still greener than green, he made it a point to learn my name and shake my hand. I saw him do this with junior people many times. It didn’t matter how famous he became — he remained the kind of person who looked past the ‘important people’ in the room and remembered to say hello to everyone.
Billy Mays Secret #1: Consistency
My secret is not varying from what I do. As they say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’
People only ever have one question about Billy: Why was he always yelling? The answer: Because it worked! In our interview, he explained that raising his voice is what ultimately raised his career prospects.
Billy told me that when he first moved to TV, he took people’s advice and tried to tone it down. But he found his pitch just wasn’t as effective when he didn’t use the projection techniques he’d learned in his early days of live selling. “I’m a pure pitchman and proud of it,” he said. “People say I yell, but I’m pitching! That’s my banter.”
This experience taught Billy an important lesson about consistency that he applied to everything else about his style of selling. It took him years to develop and polish his iconic delivery, but then he locked it in and didn’t deviate. “I dial it up or down depending on the product,” he said, “but it’s the same basic pitch I’ve been using for 25 years.”
Billy Mays Secret #2: Criteria
I turn products down all the time. I have a five-point checklist, five basic questions.
When I interviewed Billy in 2008, he was everywhere on TV. It was clear he had the ‘hot hand,’ so almost every major marketer had at least one commercial featuring him. But that doesn’t mean he was indiscriminate in accepting new projects. Since I was always interested in refining my own product criteria, I asked Billy to share his. Below are the five basic questions he said he always asked:
Is it demonstrable?
Does it have mass appeal?
Does it solve a problem?
Does it give instant gratification?
Does it have a point of difference?
Looking at this list again today, I paused on #4. As marketers, we tend to think a lot more about making compelling promises than delivering on those promises. Billy said a good product should be “like a vacuum — you want to use it and see the results right away.”
He was also a big advocate of a simple rule. “In the back of my mind and everyone’s mind is the question: Am I going to get ripped off?” he said. “So it has to work!”
Billy Mays Secret #3: Control
Everyone says I stare, but I’m really just looking the viewer right in the eye.
Billy started his career on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, pitching kitchen products for “Ron Popeil’s relations,” as he put it. “I think I was one of the last pitchmen in the country trained on the boardwalk,” he told me. “I learned a lot watching those great pitchmen working a crowd of 50 to 60 people.”
One thing he learned was how to control an audience, methods and techniques that he brought with him to live shopping (HSN) and then to TV. These included: making eye contact, creating the perception of a limited-time offer and, above all, storytelling.
“When you were into your pitch and telling a great story, people would get mesmerized,” he told me. “We called it ‘going under the ether.’ It was almost like they would get in a trance.”
Billy Mays Secret #4: Calm
What I’ve learned is: You can’t get emotionally attached. Let America vote…Then let it go.
The last thing Billy and I discussed that day was his philosophy. I wanted to know if he had ever fallen in love with an item that failed, and how he handled the emotions of that experience.
Billy admitted to being smitten with several of his products over the years. “Of course I get excited, and I do everything I can to make a product work,” he said. But then he added thoughtfully: “As hard as I try, I’ve very rarely been able to fix a commercial that America didn’t like the first time.”
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