Meeting Billy Mays: The Voice that launched $1 billion in sales
I have a great feature running Sunday in Floridian about Odessa resident William D. "Billy" Mays, the spark plug pitchman behind such legendary infomercials at OxiClean, Zorbeez, Hercules Hooks and much, much more.
With partner Anthony Sullivan, Mays is starring in a new series for Discovery Channel called Pitchmen, in which the two sort through a group of aspiring inventors -- almost American Idol-style -- and pick the best products to feature in their infomercials.
I've known Sullivan since 2003, when the personable Brit competed on Survivor producer Mark Burnett's gonzo survival race, The Eco-Challenge. We spent an afternoon hanging out at his Bayshore Boulevard condo in Tampa talking about the race for a pretty entertaining feature that previewed his unfortunately unsuccessful run.
Now Sully and Billy have developed a mini-empire in the Tampa Bay area, anchoring a Discovery Channel series produced by the guy behind hits such as Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.
I caught up with the two last week, as they were filming a commercial in Gulfport for Arm & Hammer baking soda, whose parent company bought the company that makes OxiClean for $325-million (Mays didn't own a piece of that product, but says he gets paid very well as an endorser.)
Here's a great slideshow that features photos from St. Petersburg Times visual journalist Scott Keeler, put together by multimedia guru Ted McLaren that gives you an idea of what it was like to hang out during the commercial shoot.
And below, I've got a clip from the commercial for Pitchmen, along with an infomercial blooper reel featuring some of Billy and Sully's priceless mistakes.
But wait . . . there's more!
Deggans: It seems the arc of your career is about the mainstreaming of the infomercial:
Mays: Yeah, from where I’m standing now, it’s pretty good. It’s probably these tough economic times, I don’t know. It seems like our business is getting better ‘cause we offer a solution, you know, for affordable – something under $20. Now that we have this reality show coming out, everybody wants to peek into our world. And then being on the Jay Leno show last week, it was just, you know, it’s like I walked out and I felt the roar of the crowd, (being) out on stage with Prince. . . . It seems like it validates what you're doing. I wear the color blue like a proud warrior.
You guys seem proud that you're still based in Florida.
Mays: here, everybody brings their A game. We’re working with some of the best film people here in the country. Look, I can go to Hollywood. I come back here to Hollyhood. I mean, that’s what I call it. This is where all … a lot of the infomercials are made. Our infomercials are all made right here. We don’t go Hollywood. You know, I have shot commercials out there. I did an ESPN spot out there and, you know, I just prefer working with this crew. I’ve been working with ‘em probably the last eight to 10 years … I’ve been on TV 11 years, so I’ve been … some of these guys are still here. So, I mean, it’s a privilege.
I heard you had some health issues last year.
Mays: I just had my hip replaced. I had a tough year. I had it replaced twice. I had a staph infection from the first one, so this last year’s been trying. And we met the guy with the (new product featured on Pitchmen), Impact Gel. All my shoes have the Impact Gel in ‘em now and it’s given me … like I stand on my leg all day. I’m still feeling … I’m healing right now, so I’m … these hard floors just kill ya. But that shock in there… it takes away that … it absorbs it, transfers energy. So it’s been a big lifesaver for me. So I’m a believer. I use all my products.
So how many different products do you have your name on right now?
Mays: At least a dozen right now. I’m selling real well.
D: And what makes the difference? I mean, what flies, what doesn’t?
Mays: You just don’t know. America votes and America decides. Like, one of my biggest ones … my biggest one, of course, is OxiClean but I would say that Mighty Putty’s been like gigantic for me. We sold 18-million sticks of Mighty Putty just in the last year and a half. So, I mean, it’s a monster. We’re getting ready to shoot a new commercial here in a couple weeks.
My working ratio rate is about six out of every 10 work, which is pretty … it’s like a slugger. I’ll get out there. I mean, if a Major League Baseball player had that kind of average, it’d be huge. There’s a process to what we do and, we ask: Does it have mass appeal? Does it solve a common problem? How big is the audience? That mass appeal is big. Is it demonstrable, you know?
I hear you have a rivalry with Vince Offer, the Shamwow pitchman, who just got arrested for beating a prostitute.
Mays: Well, you can try to knock me off – and he did, with the Shamwow. They’re basically Zorbeez (Mays pitched a product similar to the Shamwow cloth years ago). You know, I had the Quick Chop. He had the Slap Chop. It’s like, I felt him rubbing into my territory but I’ve always taken the high road. I joke around about it but, look, I know the guy. I know he’s a little whatever, but I just … you know, what goes around comes around and I can’t worry about that. Jay Leno even … he’s the one who broke the story to us. So, I’m …
D: Right, right. There was talk of a pitch-off, right? Between you and …
Mays: Yeah, I was calling him out, was flushing him out. This had happened a while ago, so he had been ducking me and, you know, I was trying to keep this thing under wraps. I mean, so it’s over. I wish the guy gets help or whatever. I don’t wanna kick the guy while he’s down. And I won’t. I mean, there’s a lot of things I could say negative ‘cause, you know, we had a run-in at the Super Bowl ‘cause we went to the same … in the same box. So we were there and just a couple … he just said some things that just riled me up and everything.
D: So he wasn’t respectful?
Mays: You know, look, he’s an unusual guy. I don’t know what possessed him to come after me, but it seems to me that that’s … you know, the first two projects out of the gate were geared toward me. But that’s neither here nor there. I’m just … steady as she goes. Got my fingers crossed for Pitchmen, you know, the series. We’ve been shooting since September, so we’ve been putting a lot of effort into this.