TV advertising veteran stepping down

By: Robert Channick

Chicago Tribune- Ron Bliwas, the longtime chief executive of A. Eicoff & Co., the Chicago-based direct-response television agency that claims credit for coining the phrase "or your money back," is stepping down.

Bliwas has headed up the nation's largest DRTV agency for 32 years, steering it from a late-night shill for everything from TV Magic Cards and hair growth formulas into a mainstream marketer for companies such as Walgreens, New York Life and The Scooter Store.

The ongoing transition from television to online advertising was one reason for handing the reins to Eicoff veteran Bill McCabe, complete with a guarantee nearly as strong as those in their many 800-number commercials.

"Bill McCabe has been leading this transition into digital media," Bliwas said. "He's better equipped to take the agency forward than me."

Bliwas, 69, who has been with the company for more than four decades, will stay on as acting chairman. McCabe, a 27-year veteran at Eicoff, is moving up from his role as executive vice president and chief operating officer, where he has worked closely with many of the agency's major accounts, including UnitedHealthcare, Quicken Loans, AARP and Genworth Financial.

Eicoff operates as an ad agency, charging a commission for creating, producing and placing commercials on television; they stayed in business by producing "measurable results" for clients, based on direct sales. The agency has grown steadily over the years and has about 120 employees, with projected billings of $600 million in 2012, said Bliwas.

Founded at the dawn of the television age by Alvin Eicoff, the agency pioneered direct-response advertising, blitzing the airwaves with product demonstrations that urged viewers to buy on the spot. Achievements included popularizing the use of 800-number ads in the 1970s and adding the ubiquitous money-back guarantee to close sales in 60 seconds or less.

Some early big sellers included an Easter egg coloring machine known as the Decoregger, TV Magic Cards featuring local magician Marshall Brodien and a record compilation for Columbia House called "101 Great Moments in Music" recordings.

The Columbia House commercial, remembered in a 2002 obituary of Eicoff in the Los Angeles Times, opened with orchestral music and a voice-over saying, "You may think this song is Tony Bennett's 'Strangers in Paradise,' but it is really the 'Polovtsian Dance No. 8' by Alexander Borodin."

Approached by AT&T in the late '70s, the agency was one of the first to incorporate 800 numbers into its commercials, which allowed advertisers to use one spot nationally and consolidate regional call centers, substantially improving results, Bliwas said.

Eicoff also launched what was arguably the first infomercial, in the late '70s, airing a 30-minute broadcast for New Generation, a hair care product that claimed to reverse baldness. Though Eicoff subsequently got out of the infomercial space, the show ran for years, generating huge revenues, if not follicular results.

In the 1980s, Eicoff helped Time-Life books sell the history of just about everything, using the growing reach of cable as the primary medium.

The agency was acquired by Ogilvy & Mather in 1982, soon after Bliwas took over as CEO, and marked a shift from gadgets and gizmos to more mainstream marketing.

"When I became the CEO, I really changed the direction of the agency and made the decision we were not going to do slicers and dicers and records," Bliwas said. "We were going to try to attract Fortune 500 companies, which we did, to do direct-response television."

Direct marketing has been growing steadily in recent years in revenue and prestige. Spending was up by 5.6 percent in 2011, to $163 billion, and now accounts for 52.1 percent of total advertising spending in the U.S., according to the Direct Marketing Association, a New York-based trade organization.

Much of that growth has been through digital channels, where direct response is integral to a range of advertising vehicles.

Once viewed as the poor stepchild of advertising agencies, Eicoff is now seen as perhaps ahead of its time and a forerunner of the digital advertising model, said Lawrence Kimmel, CEO of the Direct Marketing Association.

"There are three revered components of contemporary marketing: data, customer centricity and accountability," Kimmel said. "Those have been core tenets of what they have done throughout. They recognized the importance of accountability in television early on, they made it viable, they made it understandable."

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