A Personal Look At One of DRTV’s Hottest Short-Form Producers

By Kellie Reagen (from Response Magazine October 1999)

It's a Friday afternoon, and Collette Liantonio, president of Concepts TV Productions, is interrupted by the telephone. It's past 1 p.m., and her receptionist, producers and other employees have left the Montville, N.J.-based production house for the day to get a jump on the weekend at either the Jersey shore or the Hamptons. "We act like an agency on Fridays," she says, referring to the summer hours held by many skyscraping advertising agencies in Manhattan. Liantonio has places to be, too. But before she leaves to go to a Junior Olympics track meet, where her youngest daughter is competing, she reviews a recently completed spot. "I pride myself on being a wordsmith," she admits. "But one good visual says it all."

The writer within

It was her writing capabilities that launched her career in direct response. For those who have been in direct response for a while, the production house Concepts TV Productions is familiar. And those who may not recognize the name are certain to have seen spots for popular housewares products such as the Great Wok of China, Smart Mop, Static Duster and Didi Seven.

It was 1979 when Liantonio was recruited by Frank Brady of Urban General Corp. to make direct response spots. "I had never done that before," Liantonio recalls. "But it sounded like a neat thing to do."

Liantonio's academic background was in theater and directing. She received her master's degree in theater from New York University in 1971. While teaching high school English and writing composition, she began entering poetry and writing competitions. As she developed a reputation as a writer, her friends began asking her to tap out brochures and copy for advertisements.

Where Liantonio had a dearth of commercial production experience, she made up for it in a reserve of ambition. Self-taught in advertising writing, Liantonio quickly initiated herself into direct response at Urban General, taking an academic approach.

"I started watching all these 800-number commercials in a marathon study," she says. In the late 1970s, the airwaves were not wont for direct response spots. And Liantonio watched them all—repeatedly. She noticed a formula and applied it to her first spot for a patio device that killed mosquitoes and insects. It was a hit.

"It was so exciting to put a commercial on the air and the next day know that you got people to reach into their pockets and spend money," she says. "It's a rush to know that you have that persuasive power. Plus, it's a living."


The agency route

Within four years, Liantonio would spear the direct response industry with her own company's stake. But first, she would test the waters in a big agency. In 1983, she briefly joined a large agency in Manhattan.

She lasted six months."I couldn't take it be‑cause I was pigeon‑holed," she says. "I was hired as an account supervisor, so I was dealing with clients and selling ideas. But I wanted to write and produce and direct."

To sate her desire to work on every step of the production process, Liantonio opened her own agency that same year. Today, Concepts TV Productions still adheres to Liantonio's interest in the entire production process. But unlike a highrise Manhattan agency, Concepts TV Productions is more like a cottage.

The personal touch

Instead of a staff of hundreds, the staff at Concepts ranges between seven and nine employees. There are no department managers and account coordinators. Liantonio oversees every step of production. In fact, every spot and infomercial begins with a script she personally writes. During any given week, Liantonio can be found writing, editing, directing and producing spots and infomercials for her direct response clientele, which includes Emson and TriStar.

At any given time, Liantonio has three producers, a technical editor, a marketing person, a financial advisor, several interns and a receptionist on staff. Last year, she opened a satellite office in Santa Monica, Calif, which is run by her son.

"All writing and creative is done in house," Liantonio says. "The benefit is that nobody does it better. It is a formula that we know very well."

Her track record speaks volumes. Among the top-selling spots created by Concepts TV Productions are Citrus Express, Bacon Wave, Denise Austin's Abs, Loadhandler, Select Comfort and Mt. Fuji Pillow. The agency has developed a reputation for short-form production, but Liantonio adds that her agency does long- form shows as well.

"People want to see a huge volume [of productions]," Liantonio says. She adds that the agency lost a potential long- form client in July because the company wanted to know which long-form hits Concepts had done recently.

"I've had success with half-hour shows. Smart Mop did seven to one," Liantonio says. "But I just don't do the volume." Concepts' most recent long- form hits have included Powercraft and a 15-minute show for Rotato.

The short form advantage

The bread and butter of Concepts is its spots. About 90 percent of the productions coming from Concepts are short- form spots, many for regular clients such as Emson, Telebrands and Tristar.

And the agency is most known for its productions done for kitchen products. "I'm a woman, and I'm comfortable in the kitchen," says Liantonio, who was a past president of her gourmet cooking club. "Clients are funny because, if you have a hit in something, then you're an expert."

Liantonio says she has seen some success with cleaning products, too. "I don't clean," she admits. "I've always hired someone to clean for me. But I've made lot of money with the Smart Mop and Static Duster." She also says that exercise products have worked well for her too.

There are categories that she is interested in that she hasn't yet done projects on. "I haven't got lot of motiva­tional shows because that is a half-hour arena. I want to do more motiva­tional shows, and I would also love to do travel shows," Liantonio says.

It isn't surprising that Liantonio has an interest in the travel category. When she isn't working or devoting time to other hobbies, which include cooking and gardening, she's planning trips she wants to take. Whether she's navigating class seven rapids along the Colorado River with her girlfriends or planning a family trip to Italy, Lianto­nio plays like she works—with obses­sive attention to every detail.

During a typical week at Concepts, Liantonio and her staff are working on upwards of five different projects, many of which are ongoing.

"We are always in various stages with various projects," Liantonio says. "Yesterday we shot a show for a new device for the shower. Today, we were editing a half-hour show we've been working on since January for a new oven that's coming out."

The following week the agency did a half-day shoot for the latest Jim Neigh­bors gospel collection on CD. "We've got all these various things in the works," she says.

Many hats

Just as varied as the agency's projects are the roles that Liantonio plays. One day may find Liantonio in a flannel shirt, writing a script for a new kitchen appliance. The next day may find her in a pressed suit, pitching an idea for a commercial to another client.

"The beauty of what I'm in is that I can do everything, from concept to completion, with the help of my creative staff."

Refining the formula for success

Liantonio's entrepreneurial approach to direct response has remained constant since her first spot for the bug zapper. Perhaps it's this trait that has preserved her direct response production house that sits on a changing horizon. Although Liantonio has been following a formula for creating direct response spots since she first identified it in 1979, she says that the industry is now in the process of redefining itself.

"The industry is in such a slump now as far as the traditional manner in which it used to generate income," she says. It is true that today one in 20 direct response spots pay out. Liantonio says that number used to be closer to one out of six that were profitable.

"But is is more exciting now because mainstream advertising has acknowledged that accountability is the way to go," Liantonio says. "Suddenly, direct response is legitimate, so it has broadened out. But old-time direct response has taken a hit."

Liantonio says many of her longstanding clients, such as Emson and Telebrands, have weathered the changes by setting up channels of retail distribution. "My steady customers who are direct response experts are fully integrated in the business and don't rely on me to give them the one hit wonder."

But this doesn't alleviate the pressure to create a hit show. In fact, it produces additional challenges with which Liantonio and her staff must contend. Many "new" clients are still reticent about the hard-selling television medium. "These clients are different because they want to be in direct response, but they don't want it to look like direct response," she says. "You can't have it both ways unless you're prepared to do a media blitz."

The surge in media rates is another reason Liantonio cites for the hit taken by direct response in recent years. Although Concepts doesn't buy media, the agency is affected by skyrocketing rates. Concepts' revenues are directly tied to sales generated by spots created for its clients. "We're not always profitable, but we're always busy," Liantonio says.

Being a business owner is another formidable hat that Liantonio dons enthusiastically. "I was never trained in business," she says. Some days, she admits to feeling like a high school teacher again, delegating assignments and settling conflicts.

Other days, she's a creative person who just expects people to do their thing happily. And still, she's an entrepreneur who has a vision for how to accomplish all the tasks in a production cycle. "Dealing with employees and clients and the other modes of thinking is kind of hard," she says.

In spite of, or maybe because of, the different directions in which her business pulls her, Liantonio says she has to remain focused on the objective. "It's important to balance the sell with the creative," she says.

This is the root of her company's philosophy and perhaps the catalyst for her reputation as one of the most recognized producers of direct responsespots. Concepts TV Productions, like any other Manhattan agency, recognizes that the sell is the bottom line.  But unlike larger agencies where a production is pieced together department by department, Concepts is one of the few places where the president knows a project's status every step of the way.  Liantonio wouldn't have it any other way. "It's nice to take an idea and develop it and see it all the way to birth.  There's a gratification in that," she says.