Video Advertising Perspectives from Tim Hawthorne, an Entrepreneur Long Before Streaming Video

I thought it would be a wonderful idea to talk to one of the original greats in video advertising, Tim Hawthorne, founder of Hawthorne Advertising, who will be bestowed a “Lifetime Achievement” honor by Marketing EDGE as part of its EDGE Awards.

While we all hunker down, work from home, and stream video content, I thought it would be a wonderful idea to talk to one of the original greats in long-form video advertising, Tim Hawthorne, founder of Hawthorne Advertising. On June 1, Tim will be bestowed a “Lifetime Achievement” honor by Marketing EDGE in New York as part of its EDGE Awards. Here, he shares valuable perspective on a video advertising career in an increasingly rich, ubiquitous medium for consumers, brands, and marketers.

A ‘Love Story’ for Film

Chet: Tim, first of all, congratulations! I’m so happy to see you recognized by Marketing EDGE – with its mission of marketing education and professional development, bringing the best and brightest into the marketing field. When you graduated from college – Harvard University no less, in 1973 (really, I mean, “Love Story“) – did you have any inkling that you would build a career of first in direct-response television (DRTV) and video advertising?

Tim Hawthorne, founder and strategic advisor, Hawthorne Advertising (Fairfield, Iowa), will be honored on June 1, during Marketing EDGE’s EDGE Awards in New York.

Tim:  No, I had no idea in 1968 as I matriculated to Harvard that I would eventually become a pioneer of direct response television marketing. (First of all, yes, “Love Story” for sure. I was wandering through the Harvard Yard in the fall of 1969 when they were shooting exteriors. Not sure, but I might be one of those students hurriedly rushing to class in the background.)

It was turbulent times while I attended Harvard – 1968-1973.  (I’m actually Class of ’68 but took a year off after my sophomore year to teach school in Ethiopia with the Harvard Africa Volunteer Project, so I graduated in ’73.) Initially, I intended to study chemistry, then switched to social psychology, influenced by the turbulent social times in the late 60s. But after getting my hands on a still camera in Ethiopia, I decided I’d take a still photography/documentary filmmaking course when I reentered Harvard in the fall of ’71. I was fascinated with the process of editing film, and then determined I’d pursue a career in filmmaking.

Searching for a job post-graduation in my hometown of Minneapolis, I was fortunate to be hired by the investigative documentary unit of the local CBS station, WCCO-TV. I worked there for almost five years, advancing from production assistant to editor to cinematographer, learning the craft of long-form storytelling. Our unit produced amazing documentaries that were often the No. 1 rated television programs in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market and won multiple awards, including the du Pont-Columbia and Peabody awards. I then became a producer/director/writer when I moved to the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia and eventually worked for a number of LA-based network primetime reality-based shows such as “Real People” and “That’s Incredible.”

Chet: Did you grow up having a love for industrial films of the 50s and 60s – which I think were a great precursor to the infomercial age and video advertising?

Tim:  No, I didn’t have any particular love for industrial films (which in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were the height of boring and simplistic video communications!) It’s my background in documentaries – telling a long form story on people and subjects – that seemed a natural basis on which to pioneer telling long-form consumer product stories.

Like many consumers, I’ve never liked being “sold” especially when I’ve felt manipulated. And of course, short-form TV commercial brand selling is very much about manipulating emotions (via humor, poignancy, excitement) and associating strong positive images (sex, strength, beauty) with a product – a very subtle and often deceptive way of selling.

Infomercial or long-form advertising has always been based on factual selling – the exposition of features and benefits – of course, in as entertaining a way as possible. But at least the channel is up-front about its message:  Here’s a product, here’s what it can do, and here are the benefits to you. This “truth in advertising” has always appealed to me. Producing documentaries is also about discovering the truth about a person, group, or issue.

In 1984, having moved from LA to Iowa for lifestyle reasons (wanting to raise our daughter Jessica in the Midwest where I grew up), I was open for new opportunities.  A local real estate investment entrepreneur heard of my background and approached me about producing a long-form commercial. It would be an hour long … and a challenge. That was November 1984, one of the first infomercials on air. Within 12 months, the infomercial had grossed more than $60 million dollars and dominated the long-form air waves. Fairfield Television Enterprise was the company I formed to market the infomercial and over 18 months we revolutionized long-form TV direct response.

Chet: How did early success stories translate to business growth? Were there mentors you paid close attention to? (Alvin Eicoff comes to mind).

Tim:  Eighteen months after launching Ed Beckley’s real estate investment infomercial, I became disillusioned with the way the company was moving forward. I resigned in April 1986 and took a couple of months off before starting Hawthorne Communications, later to become Hawthorne Direct, and then become Hawthorne Advertising. In late June 1986, I was a one-person company with the goal to persuade Fortune 500 companies to add long-form TV commercials to their marketing mix. We were the first infomercial ad agency in the world and I was confident that virtually all products had, somewhere at their hearts, a fascinating story we tell and hold viewers’ attention for 28 minutes and 30 seconds.

The agency had a singular focus: TV long-form advertising. There was no road map for the industry. We invented it as we went along. Certainly Al Eicoff was the reigning master of DRTV (and his book “Or Your Money Back” a short-form DRTV bible) but his company focused on short-form DRTV (2 minutes or less). So I and my growing team began to innovate, and I began to write about and present the long form story to marketing groups and corporations literally around the world. There was no road map; we were the trailblazers.

A Litany of Firsts and Video Advertising Innovations

Chet: Trailblazer indeed. What are some of the innovations you have brought to the field of DRTV, infomercials, and more recently digital video programming? How has digital disruption affected the traditional DRTV and broadcast channel, from a marketing perspective?

Tim: I’ve been called a “leading architect” of the DRTV industry by producing an impressive string of “firsts”:

  • Co-founder and president of the first infomercial direct marketer to break the $50 million revenue per year mark, Fairfield Television Enterprises
  • Founder and chairman of the first infomercial advertising agency, Hawthorne Communications
  • Produced the first infomercial for: a Fortune 500 company – Time Life; a major music company – Time Life Music; a major credit card company – Discover Card; a major health insurance company – Blue Cross Blue Shield; and a retail driving campaign for a brand name product – Braun
  • Infomercial Agency of Record for the first infomercial for: a major computer company – Apple Computers; and a major weight loss company – Weight Watchers
  • Infomercial Agency of Record for the first “promo-mercial” – a half-hour promotion for a primetime TV series (NBC’s “JAG”)
  • Published the industry’s first newsletter: “The 1-800 Report”
  • Published the industry’s first hard-bound textbook on infomercials: “The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing”
  • Created the first long-form TV media buying computer analysis system – “Time Track”
  • Purchased the first long-term cable TV bulk media contract: Discover Network, for $50 per half hour, six hours per night
  • Established the first infomercial agency/traditional agency alliance with Earl Palmer Brown

As for innovations to digital video, Hawthorne was one of the first agencies to actively use video promotion on websites (late 1990s) and we pioneered the “drive online direct sales” with short-form TV commercials, which were designed to motivate new visitors to our web-based clients.

Yes, the digital economy has significantly disrupted DRTV, as it has the television entertainment model as a whole. With a 35% drop in primetime adult (18-49) viewership from 2015-2019, the era of aggregating mass audiences on broadcast TV is long over.

A Family Affair – and an Investment in the Future

Chet: Was it a great leap – or expansion – from Fairfield, Iowa (hey, I’m from Nebraska) to Los Angeles? What brought Hawthorne Advertising to LA (and beyond)? Was there a talent pool you needed there?

Tim: From the beginning, Hawthorne was somewhat disadvantaged being a national advertising agency headquartered in a small Iowa town. We did have a small LA office (two staff) from the early 90s to keep in touch with our West Coast clients. But when Jessica (my daughter) came on board in March 2007, she brought an energy and vision to the company previously unknown.

Her goal was to build the LA office and lead the company into a digital future. And she has done that in spades, making LA our headquarters, while our Iowa office strongly administratively supports LA to this day. Our LA office certainly had access to talent we always struggled to persuade to move to Iowa, as you, being a Nebraskan, are probably aware of. It was a brilliant move by Jessica which has allowed the company to continue to thrive going into our 35th year.

June 2011 Cover - Response Magazine
Tim Hawthorne and Jessica Hawthorne-Castro share the cover of Response Magazine (June 2011) on the 25th Anniversary of the Hawthorne Advertising agency.

Chet: Well now we know why Marketing EDGE named Jessica Hawthorne-Castro a 2015 Rising Stars honoree. (You must be very proud!)

Tim: Yes, I’m very proud of Jessica’s ownership and leadership of the company. And it wasn’t by design. Jessica was a thriving talent agent at Endeavor, one of the few women agents at that male-dominated business with six years’ tenure. But she recognized that industry was missing certain business and spiritual values important to her. In February 2007, I coincidentally asked her if she had time to monitor a commercial talent audition in LA that we needed someone to attend. She did it, enjoyed it, and said she would be open to coming on board at Hawthorne. Over the next five years she soaked up the business, brought much-needed youthfulness to our efforts, advanced from client service associate to CEO, and built our LA office to 50-plus employees, while transforming the agency to a digital foundation.

Chet: As an author of several business books on DRTV and infomercial formats, and likely a bevy of company alumni in the field today, you’ve contributed so much to the professional development of data-driven marketers, marketing measurement, attribution and the like. What part of giving back to the field do you find most gratifying? Is there a particular “lifetime” achievement you’re most proud of?

Tim: My greatest achievement? Creating a company that has endured for 35 years and allowed hundreds of staff to learn, thrive, and grow in marketing knowledge and experience, while realizing greater personal achievement and confidence. We created a company that was a home for our staff to do great work amid friendship and respect. Undoubtedly my greatest achievement, far beyond any creative work for a client.

Thank you Tim – and we’re so happy to celebrate your contributions at the EDGE Awards come June 1.  And much more video success ahead!




3 DRTV Testing Tips for Digital Marketers

Lately, I have been talking to several marketers that want to test direct response television advertising for their brands. Interestingly, these companies that want to test DRTV are category disruptors, born from the Internet. These are companies founded on direct relationships with consumers established through search engines and social media.

DRTVLately, I have been talking to several marketers that want to test direct response television advertising for their brands. Interestingly, these companies that want to test DRTV are category disruptors, born from the Internet. These are companies founded on direct relationships with consumers established through search engines and social media.

The reasons to complement data-driven digital marketing with television are convincing. These internet brands are faced with many challengers in the same space. It is difficult to establish a unique brand position through search. Television remains the most powerful medium for quickly communicating a message and establishing an identity.

More importantly, marketers are finding that building companies one-click at a time is not achieving their goals for growth. Nielsen reports the average American still watches 5 hours a day. With that large an audience television can quickly scale the reach needed to grow businesses.

Most companies are concerned with the high-entry costs for television and not getting the instant ROI expected from digital channels. That’s what makes the more accountable DRTV so compelling. The opportunity to lower media costs with the assumption that the spots will generate response.

These expectations for DRTV might be misunderstood and a little high. One of the companies that I spoke with did a test of television (on their own and not with my direction). They ended up canceling after 2-weeks because of cost and perceived lack of performance.

Before testing television’s impact on response and acquisition, ensure your test is set-up to deliver effective and measurable results. A poor test could result in mistakenly dismissing a potentially valuable channel for marketing.

Here are a few tips for an effective test:

Tip #1 – Utilize Television to Its Strength – Reach

Television is a mass medium and is most efficient when used to reach a mass audience.

Digital marketers might believe that an impression delivered to a non-targeted prospect is useless and a wasted expense.  Restricting reach to select areas using cable or specific homes through addressable OTT may seem to solutions for waste. However, these options reduce consumer reach while increasing media costs, impairing the benefits of television, efficiency and scale.

With your initial television test, utilize the networks, stations, and dayparts that best reach your target audience.  If the results are good, you can start looking for ways to optimize your buy to drive more efficiency. If the television doesn’t drive results, at least you don’t need to second guess your media execution.

When putting together a test with the right stations and dayparts, be less concerned about Reach, Frequency, and GRPs.  Those are metrics to predict the effectiveness of a traditional television buy. If you are testing DRTV with the intent of generating response, results should be the measure of effectiveness.  Do look for deals as a lower cost per spot should contribute to a lower cost per response.

Tip #2 – Track All Results!

My preferred method for tracking the performance of a DRTV test are dedicated phone numbers assigned to each station.  With time-stamped, phone number data it is possible to identify the best stations and dayparts for driving results.

However, a digital disruptor may not be set-up for phone calls. They will likely want to drive response to its online sales-funnel.  Spot airing times and web-traffic data can be aligned to measure direct response to the ads. Establish site traffic baselines before spots begin airing to quantify traffic lift in response to television.

When tracking all results, also look for lift in response rates to other channels. Unlike other mediums, the awareness created by television is likely to increase response in other channels.

Quantifying the impact television can have on other channels can be done with the classic tactic of Control versus Treated. By holding out a market from a recent program, I had comparison data to quantify the lift DRTV had on other channels. The test showed a 25% increase to the direct mail response and a 50% lift in the search clickthrough rate.

If a control hold-out isn’t possible, compare response rates from pre and post television advertising. The lift in response rates can be enough to support using television as a compliment to other direct channels.

Tip #3 – Give DRTV Testing Some Time

Testing television for the first time is big decision.  It requires company buy-in and investments of time on money to develop a spot and get it on television. The desire to show immediate success is great, however, it is a test. Results can take time to develop.

It can take a couple of weeks for a brand with limited awareness to connect with consumers.

Two-weeks of frequency may be needed to build enough interest to elicit a response. It can take longer depending on your DRTV schedule.

If results are limited after two-weeks consider adjusting the television schedule to test different programming.

At 4-weeks you should have quantified results, either direct response to the television or response lift in other channels. With results you can begin assessing the opportunities for expanding the program.

If the results are not seen in 4-weeks, then it might be time to suspend the program. As direct marketers know, more spending isn’t likely to improve ROI.

Because the initial test didn’t produce the desired results does not mean that television cannot work for your brand. Go back and reconsider all elements of the program including the spot, the offers, and the media buy.

My Time With ‘The Greatest’ – A Lesson in Authenticity

In 1986, I was doing TV lead generation for a Medicare Supplement brand when a gift fell into my lap. Muhammad Ali had purchased our Med Supp product for his parents, and was open to our overtures to endorse the brand.

Target Marketing Blogger Chuck McLeester with Muhammad Ali in 1986.
Target Marketing Blogger Chuck McLeester with Muhammad Ali in 1986.

In 1986, I was doing TV lead generation for a Medicare Supplement brand when a gift fell into my lap. Muhammad Ali had purchased our Med Supp product for his parents, and was open to our overtures to endorse the brand.

WOW! We were going to make a TV commercial with “The Greatest” and I would be spending two days on the set with him and his parents, Cassius and Odessa Clay.

It was a beautiful day on location at a classic Southern-style home in Maryland with a wrap-around porch. At that time, the Champ could barely speak, and he didn’t really try to. Nor did he have to. His presence was overwhelming, his demeanor calm and confident, and the look in his eyes communicated nothing but warmth and kindness. He managed to muster enough control to say his one line at the end of the spot, but his mother, Mrs. Clay, did all the heavy lifting with the script.

Mr. and Mrs. Clay sat together on the porch while Mrs. Clay recited a classic DRTV script: Call out to the audience, present the problem/solution, and deliver a call to action. Cassius Clay Sr., who was not as smooth-spoken as his wife Odessa Clay, nodded in agreement.

All the while, Mr. Ali entertained the crew with his magic tricks and other antics, and he delighted some local children who had stopped by to view the spectacle, giving them his undivided attention until he retreated for his prayer time.

His demeanor bore little resemblance to the brash young fighter taunting his opponents with poetic bluster. Or to the man who was one of the most polarizing figures in America during a politically tumultuous era, denouncing the war in Vietnam, embracing the Muslim religion and changing his name to the one that we associate with the man who was the most recognizable person on the planet.

During that time, I was learning a lot about direct response marketing – grinding through the nitty gritty of maximizing lead volume within an allowable acquisition cost and testing ways to improve lead conversion. I don’t think I was conscious of the fact that I was a witness to one of the most amazing evolutions of a personal brand — ever.

After he lost his boxing license for three years over his refusal to be inducted into the army, he reclaimed the heavyweight championship, was exonerated as a conscientious objector, fought in the ring until 1981, and then became an ambassador for peace and tolerance. In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. It’s the highest civilian award in the United States.

Throughout his evolution, Ali never strayed from his core principles: fairness, self-confidence, hard work, determination, persistence and most importantly, authenticity.

These core principles were the essence of his brand and he embraced them throughout every stage of his life. That’s how it’s done.

Rest in Peace, Champ!