If anyone was born and raised in the world of direct response television, it is Garrett Bess. With a family history of direct marketers and entrepreneurs, Bess's inclination for the DRTV business would appear to have started in the womb.
Now as president of Great! Response, Bess, 30, is using his predisposition and experience to help the direct response agency beef up its roster of three active clients and billings of $2 million. He is set on increasing both benchmarks by 100 percent by the end of this year for the wholly-owned division of Grey Advertising in New York. He is looking outside the realm of traditional infomercial business to grow Great! Response, a daunting task considering most major advertising agencies abandoned their infomercial divisions years ago.
If his DRTV spot and infomercial for Prestone Products Corp. are any indication, he says he should be able to accomplish the goal of using DRTV marketing for major brands. The auto care company recently rolled out a spot for Bullet Wax, a car waxing and cleaning system. He says the response has been good, although the company is testing other price points. Meanwhile, the spot is boosting retail sales.
“On the retail side of the world, the media is definitely having an impact,” he says. “We are seeing an increase.”
Bess' family history is filled with direct response experience. His maternal grandfather, Nathan Morris, invented products such as the Crazy Straw and Morris Metrix slicer through his company, NK Morris Manufacturing, which often sold direct to consumers on the boardwalks of Asbury Park, NJ. Bess' paternal grandfather, Herman Bess, sold such products as jewelry and home goods direct to consumers on “Shop by TV,” a program carried on a New York TV station. Bess his father and grandfather would go to the station to pick up boxes of mail orders and payments for the products. Meanwhile, Bess' cousins and uncles were also in the selling business.
“I have an entrepreneurial spirit tempered with an understanding of how agencies work and have been able to find a happy medium between the two,” Bess says. “I am pretty much a hybrid product of where I come from. As a result, I have an understanding of the industry and how it can benefit people based on their objectives.”
Objectives vary by client. “Clients have to be realistic about levels of success,” he says. “You are never going to get the reach and frequency you get with general rate advertising.”
His perspective about the DRTV business has been transformed in the last nine years. “I have gone through a complete metamorphosis. When I first got into this business all I thought about was the big score,” Bess says, referring to the mindset of many infomercial entrepreneurs who seek to rake in millions of dollars from TV offers.
Bess got into direct response at age 21 as a vice president and director of production for Quantum Television, a group that was ultimately purchased out of bankruptcy by an early incarnation of National Media Corp., Philadelphia. The first production of his one-year tenure was a hit. The product was a music collection called “Solid Gold Rock 'N' Roll.” Wolfman Jack hosted the 30-minute program, the first for a record compilation.
Bess left Quantum shortly thereafter, and with his cousin, Barry Slott, started MultiMedia, an agency that handled the development and selling of new products.
Bess implemented a number of infomercial programs. The first was a baseball card trading kit program hosted by baseball superstars Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson; Bess considered it “moderately successful.” Results went downhill from there. The second, La Manita, a gourmet coffee club that paired Braun and freshly harvested coffee beans, was well-done but ineffective, he says. “It was an extravagant production and was done like a documentary. It was very highbrow. It failed.”
He tried one more product: Pasta Fresca, a pasta maker for home use. But problems with a manufacturer led to delays in production and delivery. MultiMedia filed suit against the manufacturer for breach of contract in 1992.
“If you're in this business and don't have failures, you are doing something wrong,” Bess says, with a hint of irony. “Successes are few and far between.”
Bess says he learned from the hardships, the corporate politics and the failed productions, shaping them into an understanding of the needs of his clients. “I changed my whole direction in this business. I made a decision to get out of selling products [and into servicing clients],” he says.
MultiMedia landed its first account in 1993 with Minneapolis-based Home Right Products and produced a successful short form spot for Home Right, a paint stick. The spot is still running.
Five years after starting MultiMedia, Bess began to look at other opportunities and Grey was among them. The demands of owning a business prompted him to make the change. “I was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, had no life outside of work and wasn't making the kind of money I wanted to be making for a family. It was time for me to move on.
“It was hard for me to leave my partner. Barry had been in many ways like a father to me, and the last thing a son wants to do is to disappoint his father.”
Nonetheless, Bess made the transition in 1995 and went to work for Great! Response, a newly created division of Grey Advertising. Bess brought his experience and industry contacts to the table, while Great! Response provided financial resources and a range of other agency services.
“They would have had no interest in me if I didn't have a client list of my own,” Bess says. “The new business opportunities are coming from past contacts and some cold solicitation. I have done this for my own products and have put my own money on the line. That gives you a whole different perspective.”
Grey's experience also was a selling point for Bess. “We have so much to offer a client — from creative to analyzing to feasibility studies to management of the critical aspects of a campaign. We give our clients access to a $9 billion a year agency.”
While the marriage between Bess and Great! Response has required some adjustments – he now works in New York instead of his home office in Red Bank, NJ — Bess is confident he can help the agency realize its goals.
“I am pitching all the time,” Bess says. “I am always working on new business stuff and continually seeking out new opportunities.”
Like others in the business, Bess is looking at shifts in the marketplace and evaluating potential opportunities for Great! Response. He sits on board of the newly created short form council of the Electronic Retail Association, formerly NIMA, to have a voice in shaping the creative and media standards for short form direct response. “The environment has forced us to rethink our business. It is not about how we can make money on TV. It is: 'Where can TV take us?'”