May 8, 2016

While I often talk about all the triumphs I’ve had in the direct marketing wars over the years, talking about my biggest failures is something that I have talked about in recent interviews more and more – and the feedback I have gotten is that listeners found it useful and instructional.

And frankly, it was cleansing for me as well.

This will be part one of two…although there were way more than two big mistakes.

Trust me.

But there is only so much cleansing one man can take…

I quote Winston Churchill often–I even wrote an entire blog about him called “The Titan who saved the world” –and this quote in particular is perfect for today’s blog:

“There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result.”

Well, as today’s post will prove, I was shot at “with a result” numerous times.

And although I survived, it’s important to share what I learned on the battlefield.

My good friend Susan Garrett, a world champion in dog agility training, always says there are no losses:

“We either win or we learn.

So here is what I learned coming off the biggest series of successes in my career which then lead to some of the biggest failures (it’s all part of the same story)…and why I think it all happened the way it did…and why it won’t happen again.

One of my earliest blogs chronicled the huge success of Boardroom’s entry into long form direct response television (i.e. infomericals).

The franchise we created from the book, The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets, conservatively led to a $200 million franchise (probably closer to $300 million if we add in all of the marketing channels we were able to roll out to as a result of the TV success).

That was the good news.

But it’s what happened after the huge success that I want to talk about today.

When we entered the world of infomercials in 2004-2005, we were told that the success rate for new shows was something like “1 in 15”–and some experts even told us it was more like “1 in 20.”

But lucky us!

We had a $30 million success with our first show and then proceeded to have bigger winners spinning off of that first show.

We beat the odds by a wide margin with 4 out of our first 5 shows becoming blockbusters.

However, on further review, maybe we weren’t so lucky after all…

This early (and unexpected) success rate did not, unfortunately, come with a dose of humility.

That is, we thought we had this “long form TV thing” figured out and we started planning all kinds of shows, in some new categories, taking some bigger risks, with unproven products and formats.

As a serial direct marketer, I knew there was nothing wrong with trying to build on the momentum, knowledge and experience we gained…but looking back, hubris trumped humility.

Coming off the $200 million phenomenon we proceeded to produce a series of flops.

I recall that we had all sorts of “good reasons” why each show didn’t work.

Our fallback position was that it was just a matter of time before we created another blockbuster–after all,we had all sorts of folks telling us we “changed the infomercial world” with our early shows.

Side note: It wasn’t that everyone was telling me/us how great we were.

I was also told by a couple of close friends, who knew long form TV and the ups and downs of the medium, to be careful–which I was not.

Looking back on that piece of this story, I think that is what gave me religion around being a member in high powered Mastermind Groups to this day–and listening more carefully to people way smarter than me.

While we lost a lot of money on that series of failures (i.e. “lessons”), this is far from a totally bleak scenario: That is, $200 to $300 million in “wins” can cover up for a lot of “learning.”

And no one should have been feeling sorry for us at the time…and I can tell you that no one did.

Biggest lessons?

  1. Don’t read your press clippings
  2. A windfall of profit does not mean you then have unlimited funds for testing
  3. Always follow the anecdotal evidence…that is, take calculated risks and build off previous successes before you re-invent

It’s true that testing is everything in direct response marketing–and it may be the number one key to success, as far as I can tell, watching the most prolific marketers throughout my career.

Looking back I can also say that every single new show “made sense” and I loved every one of them.

To this day, I don’t understand why some of them didn’t work.

Maybe I should re-check some of those numbers from 2008 to 2011!.

However, looking at the biggest lessons learned, I think it was clear that we did not think through each show as carefully as we might have had we not had such immediate success…and we quickly forgot that this was a medium everyone told us we would fail 15 or 20 times before we had our first winner.

And then there was this oversight: We did all of this heavy R & D/testing right into a recession.

But everyone else knew there was a recession, right?

That also should have figured into our thought process as we planned our aggressive strategy in what we knew was one of the riskiest mediums.

I guess looking at our bank account we just figured we could do no wrong…

Direct response marketing is as wonderful as it is cruel…your numbers don’t lie and picking up earlier on negative trends and signals that a successful model cannot be repeated as easily as you thought is as important as rolling out to a successful model.

My mentors in direct mail like Rose Harper, Dick Benson and Ed Burnett had it right in terms of how you “pyramid” on lists (e.g. you don’t mail a million names from a list after you have a success mailing 5,000…you go to 25,000 or 50,000 and build gradually).

I have every book written on that subject so shame on me!

I have a quote I love to use in speeches that always gets a laugh or two…yet it is so important to remember in the context of building any direct response business:

“I have predicted with 100% accuracy the success or failure of every campaign I have ever done…after I have the results.”



P.S. All right…I feel cleansed…and now I have a special gift for you.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of conquering the infomercial business, I want to give you as a gift one of the most insightful presentations from the Titans of Direct Response

This is the one where I interviewed one of my heroes, Greg Renker (partner at Guthy-Renker, which at the time of the interview was doing around $1.8 Billion in the infomercial business and beyond–a true multi media giant).

You can grab the link for free here…no opt in and no obligation:

Watch: “If you think Guthy-Renker is just about infomercials, think again”

P.P.S. And regarding my post last week, “Eugene Schwartz is my Homeboy” , I was surprised and delighted with all of the inquiries about Breakthrough Advertising, the most important book ever written about copy, creative and human behavior (which are all linked as we know)…

Many people told me they have seen used copies for sale on line for hundreds of dollars…and those who wrote to me found out that I have copies available at $95 plus shipping.

So if you are interested in purchasing a copy directly from me, just send me an e-mail with “Breakthrough Advertising” in the subject line and I will send you the details on ordering.

And because of the response to last week’s blog, I am planning a re-printing of the book for which I will write an updated Foreword; and doing a “Breakthrough Advertising Course” is also moving up my priority list thanks to all of you!

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

  1. So interesting to see the power of one single good product. I myself have noticed that ran intro trubles when after an initial success start to escale more than what would be proportional adequate, wrongly beliving that now it is going to be easy. In fact some psychologists hava found that we have some cognitive bias to rememeber notable or unusual examples rather than typical examples. Thus making us do some mistakes. Thanks for the great post.

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