That same basic process is what you see in many of Mays’s TV spots and in all similar direct-response ads (the ones that instruct you to call now). And that’s exactly why high-profile advertising agencies don’t much care for Mays’s brand of selling. It’s too direct for their tastes -- too lowbrow. “Madison Avenue guys think that what Billy and I do is cheap advertising,” says Sullivan, who has produced Mays’s biggest commercials, the OxiClean and Orange Glo spots.
The real-life “mad men” are correct on at least one point: Mays’s most powerful selling tool is as cheap as it comes. It’s his voice, “a weapon,” as he likes to call it. Mays learned to utilize it during his stint on the boardwalk, where he also mastered the jerky hand motions you see in his ads. At the time, it was his way to figuratively reach out and bring the crowd closer. Also, Mays’s linebacker stature helped him when it came to demonstrating a product. The one he was most successful with was the WashMatik, a system that makes it possible for users to wash a car without running water. “It was a physical item and no one wanted to work it,” Mays says. “You had to be in shape. You had to wash a car all day long to show how this device worked.”
Mays was so good at selling the WashMatik, in fact, that he took it to home shows, state fairs, and anywhere else he could legally set up a booth to demonstrate it. “I was a grinder,” he says. “No matter if there was almost nobody in the building. If you start with one person, more will come. So I’d just start talking, even if there wasn’t a crowd. ‘You there, what are you doing? You want to help me?’ It might just be a little girl with her mom. And I’d say, ‘You don’t have to buy anything. You just have to help me get a crowd together.’ And, of course, they were usually the first ones who ended up buying something.”
Mays was grinding out WashMatik sales on the day he met Max Appel, the man who would eventually give him his big break. Appel, the inventor of OxiClean and Orange Glo, had set up a pitch booth adjacent to Mays’s booth at the 1993 Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show, where Mays literally shouted down the nearby competition. But after Appel fell silent in defeat, Mays loaned him a spare microphone and turned the volume down on his own mic. Three years later, Appel repaid that kindness. He’d landed a slot for Orange Glo on the Home Shopping Network, and he called up Mays to pitch it on the air.
Sullivan was already at HSN when Mays arrived at the network’s Tampa studios. He’d escaped from selling on the street and was a rising star at HSN. So he felt understandably uneasy when he saw another pitchman on set. “My competition had arrived,” Sullivan recalls. “I didn’t help him out at all. The first time Billy went on TV, he was stiff and nervous. But by his third airing, he got into his stride and started to kill it.”
They both killed it, actually. Sullivan and Mays dominated HSN over the next several years, separately pitching a variety of products. Then, in 1999, Appel hired Mays away from HSN, making him the primary commercial spokesman for Orange Glo and OxiClean. Sullivan was hired to produce Mays’s TV spots.
Appel has since sold his company -- for $327 million -- to Church & Dwight. And guess who Church & Dwight then hired to produce pitchmen-style commercials for their best-known brand, the 160-year-old Arm & Hammer baking soda? Not some suits from Madison Avenue but Sully and Billy.