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NJ Savvy Living: “Infomercial Queen Has The Common Touch”

The April/May 2010 issue of NJ Savvy Living featured Collette as the “Infomercial Queen.”

By Patricia Herold

A mere four words describe the influence Collette Liantonio wields in America’s vast billion dollar commercial marketplace: “Queen of the Infomercial.”

She didn’t invent the form, but she’s sure perfected it – selling Hooked on Phonics, Topsy Tail, Perfect Pasta Pot, George Foreman Grills and countless other legendary products, over and over again to millions of consumers.

People magazine once dubbed George Foreman “The Marketing Champ of the World,” announcing that, “Almost everything George Foreman touches seems to sell.”

Truth is, almost everything Liantonio touches seems to sell.  This petite, Montville resident with bright blue eyes, blonde hair and stylish Chanel glasses is a heavyweight in the intensely competitive world of TV direct response, a star marketer with a gift for turning ordinary products into household names and getting us to drop the remote, grab the phone, and say: “I want one!”

She’s marketed a host of hits, chalked up more than 25 years in a male-dominated business and become an industry expert on what makes us want to buy.  Her secret?  There are many, but it all begins with the right words.

“I have a nice ability to turn a phrase that people like,” says Liantonio, something she dubs “metaphors for the masses,” wording that makes consumers respond to the announcer, urging them to “call now.”

When a client shows her a product, whether Bedazzled, “the hottest craft item in America today,” (for adding rhinestones to clothes) or the $19.99 limited edition “piece of history” plate celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration, her instincts tell her exactly how to make us “get it.”

“I recognize a magic moment in a demonstration,” Liantonio says, sitting in the sleek, spotless kitchen that adjoins her office at the cozy Boonton headquarters of her company, Concepts TV Productions Inc.

THE COMMON TOUCH

“A magic moment is the ‘ah hah’ moment in a commercial that makes you want to buy a product, she says. And  although Liantonio has been called the “queen,” her tremendous success probably has more to do with her kitchen table instincts than royal ways. She seems to have the common touch, a knack for knowing just what words and images will make the average consumer buy the product, “as seen on TV.”

Born in Brooklyn, Liantonio knew early on she would not be going into the family moving business her grandfather started.  .It was successful and, she explains, “It was for men. My father and his brother wanted to give the business to the boys … It was like ‘and Sons.’  That’s how it used to be.”

Besides, her interest lay in theater and directing, not trucking. (Her father had been a journalism major who went into the family business after the war, but dabbled in writing, penning articles for Movers News.) In high school, Liantonio was an actress who wrote poetry. Her career plan was to run a college theater. But at 22, she ended up with a job at Rutherford High School, teaching classes in film, writing and Spanish. She wasn’t much older than her students, and the closeness in age made her uncomfortable.

After three years, Liantonio decided to put her writing to work, doing brochures for people in her Clifton neighborhood and getting a job on the local paper on the bottom rung: covering night municipal meetings. Eventually, she moved on to work at a direct response business, later taking a position as an account supervisor for an ad agency. By this time, her first marriage had broken up, and she was on her own, so full-time work was a necessity. She remembers chain smoking at night, working only after her children had gone to bed. “I had two kids; I had no options,” she recalls.

The ad agency work focused on client relations, and she missed what she calls “executing” … seeing something through from beginning to end.” Eventually, she went out on her own.

These days, Liantonio still gets to “execute,” whether writing a script, attending a product demonstration or traveling to Mexico City to collect and shoot testimonials from native Spanish speakers for a “Hooked on English” commercial.

BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY

She acknowledges that she’s well known and has a history of success, but Liantonio takes nothing for granted. “As an entrepreneur, I don’t think anybody ever knows. I’m insecure always; there’s an ebb and flow to business.” And although she’s made it in a risky field (she’s a member of the Women Presidents Organization, reserved for women with multimillion dollar businesses) and has won numerous industry awards, Liantonio describes her company philosophy as conservative.

Her core principles: “I don’t believe in overhiring (she employs 10 people); I don’t believe in debt … I’m old school that way.  I don’t leverage; that’s my comfort.  I hire generalists.  I hire people who can grow. People who are smart … eager.”

She also has been delighted to hire family members and friends from time to time.  Her daughter, Eve Fusco, now director of creative services, once managed Concept TV’s finances.  (Liantonio’s office, located in a cozy renovated frame house is barely a mile from Eve and two little grandsons’ doorstep.) And daughter, Collette DeBenedetto, currently working for Creative Artists in Los Angeles, once expressed an interest in making her mother’s family business a two-generation affair.

Liantonio also draws in members of her community.  Residents of Mountain Lakes, where she and husband Jan DeBenedetto once lived in a imposing lakeside home, aren’t surprised to spot neighbors as models in Concepts ads or learn an acquaintance is working for – or has interned with – the company. One of Liantonio’s daughter’s good friends, Dana Conklin, is a prized producer.

ON LOCATION

In fact, it’s Conklin’s mother who provided the set for a recent Concepts TV shoot, her well-furnished suburban colonial near the Morristown/Mendham border. A make-up artist and model have taken over one end of Conklin’s long dining room table, while in the upstairs master suite, Liantonio is directing.Wearing comfortable black shoes, she’s surrounded by production assistants, her favorite three-man camera crew and a Montclair State intern, one of many interns she’s welcomed over the years.

“Animating” an inanimate product made of plastic or steel – making it live in the consumer’s mind – is a Liantonio specialty, something she describes as, “Here’s what it is; here’s what it does.” The pace is relaxed.

“Are we comfy?” she asks the group circled around the whirlpool tub, on whose edge is poised the object of their attention: a graceful foot demonstrating a nail invention. “Camera is rolling … and action!” The camera stays fixed on the foot and the model’s hand, daintily painting her toenails. Collette stands face to face with the screen that frames the camera’s shot, seemingly scrutinizing every pixel, studying the effect.

Spontaneously, the model lifts her foot gently, her toes delicately poised on the tub. “That’s great! I like the arch,” Collette says. “Now model it… we love your feet, Jen!  Angle your toes a little bit … Nice, that’s good on the light, Pete … Excellent.” They’ve shot this sequence a couple of times, but for now, the Queen of the Infomercial finds it just right.

“The beauty of this business is you put it up on the air and it either sells or it’s a bomb,” she notes.  In a few months, if those perfect nails set off by that perfect arching foot and a few perfect words get TV watchers to reach for their credit cards and pick up their phones, Collette Liantonio will once again have had her say.