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Sales tips from the new Billy Mays

By Thom Patterson, CNN
  • TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan replaces the late Billy Mays as product spokesman
  • Sullivan learned to pitch in London's English street markets where "poetry meets sales"
  • No matter who you are, everyone is always selling something, he says
  • His tips for pitching: be passionate, sincere, smile and use humor

(CNN) -- He's the new Billy Mays. But Anthony Sullivan doesn't shout, and he didn't exactly jump at the chance to take up the mantle of the famous TV pitchman.

Nine months after the ubiquitous king of direct-response TV commercials was found dead in his Florida home at age 50, Mighty Brands has announced that Sullivan will take Mays' place as product spokesman.

When Mighty Brands initially approached him with the idea, Sullivan, 41, was hesitant at first.

"They came to me and said, 'You guys were great friends' -- so it was tough." After Mays' family signed on to the idea, "it came down to a question of, if I didn't do it, who else was going to do it?"

... here's where we sort the needy from the greedy, the spiers from the buyers, the ones that trust me from the ones that don't. ... That's where poetry meets sales.
--Anthony Sullivan, TV pitchman

For those who haven't watched any TV in the past decade, the phrase "Hi, Billy Mays here for Oxi Clean!" made him a household name. Mays was the "bearded, lovable rogue," said Sullivan. Mays built a trademark with his shouting style and blue shirt and khaki pants.

Sullivan was the mastermind behind those ads, acting as director and producer after competing against Mays for years in the cutthroat world of TV pitchmen.

To his credit, Sullivan -- like Mays -- has sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products -- many of them you've likely seen on TV.

But before Sullivan moved countless Stick Up Bulbs, Smart Choppers, One Sweeps and Swivel Sweepers -- his first TV sales pitch almost happened by mistake.

In 1993, Sullivan stopped by the cable shopping channel HSN to sell a product called the SmartMop. At first, while chatting informally with a show host about the mops, Sullivan was unaware that the robotic cameras were trained on him.

"Are we on?" he asked, already realizing the answer to his question.

"I just sort of froze for half a second, and I thought sh--, I just gotta pitch."

Nine minutes later, the phone lines exploded. After 22 minutes, Sullivan had sold 5,000 SmartMops. Not bad for his first time at bat.

Eventually, Mays also joined HSN and the two men "lit up that network" for the next six years, said Sullivan.

Different styles

The two pitchmen wield very different styles. As Sullivan describes it, Mays' secret weapon was himself and his bearded pitchman character to grab viewers' attention.

Sullivan, on the other hand, mesmerizes viewers with his southwestern English accent. He describes his style as honing in on viewers and focusing on the benefits of the product.

Before earning U.S. citizenship, a younger Sullivan cut his teeth in the English street markets of London, drawn to the fast-talking Artful Dodgers who were as much entertainers as they were hucksters and pitchers. "I was always amazed."

Tips for a winning sales pitch
--Be passionate
--Be sincere
--Use humor

Source: Anthony Sullivan, TV pitchman

The London pitchmen -- following a centuries-old tradition in places like Petticoat Lane, Portobello Road and Blackbushe Market -- knew they'd won over a crowd when they'd see a husband nudge a wife acknowledging they'd been entertained.

"They'd say, 'You know, we watched this guy pitch his heart out and even though we really don't need what he's selling, he made us laugh.' They'd give you a 10-pound tip and take whatever it was we were selling. And I really enjoyed that part of the business."

Sullivan says street pitching has become a virtual lost art now because of eBay and the Internet.

"It was just poetic, these pitches," recalled Sullivan, quoting some of the riffs that still echo across the years. 'Ladies and gentlemen, here's where we sort the needy from the greedy, the spiers from the buyers, the ones that trust me from the ones that don't.' It was just this poetry -- if you will. That's where poetry meets sales."

In the world of TV pitches, poetry meets sales with phrases like, "For zest, it's the best!" and "That's cash in the trash!"

As Sullivan says, the best pitchers demonstrate their products -- and the bigger the demonstration, the better. He's been set on fire and shared a kitchen with a grizzly bear. "Some pretty crazy stuff."

This month Sullivan spent a day being dunked in the Florida intercoastal waterway. Sullivan went parasailing in a suit wrapped in a product called Mighty Thirsty, plunging into the water to demonstrate its absorbency. "It was a strange moment, but only Billy could have got me there."

Because of his street market background -- or perhaps in spite of it -- Sullivan admits that some think his sales approach is more sophisticated than Mays' boisterous, bellowing banter.

"I think we're both relentless."

Mays died shortly after he and Sullivan wrapped the first season of Discovery Channel's reality based TV series PitchMen.

According to a Hillsborough County, Florida, autopsy report issued in August, Mays died from a heart attack -- with cocaine listed as a contributing factor.

Choosing to move forward after Mays' death, Sullivan and Discovery are producing a second season of PitchMen without casting a replacement for Mays. The refreshed program will focus more on inventors who pitch their products to be accepted for a Sullivan TV ad campaign.

"I think Billy would have slapped me on the side of the head if I didn't continue with it," said Sullivan.

'Life's a pitch and then you buy it'

Mays lives on in thousands of YouTube videos, where he's often heard saying, "Life's a pitch and then you buy it."

Everyone is always selling or buying something, whether they realize it or not, said Sullivan.

Gallery: Famous TV Pitchmen
  • Billy Mays
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"When your child's applying for college -- it's no different from pitching. You're pitching yourself, your services, your family. You're selling your house, you're buying a house. Everyone is involved in the buying or selling process. Even if you're buying -- you're being sold."

How does Sullivan make the sale? "I think you have to be passionate. You have to be sincere. You have to really believe in what you sell. You have to do it with a smile. I often think that if you can make someone laugh while you're selling -- and disarm them with a little bit of humor -- it goes such a long way."

But that's not all, as the pitchmen often say. There's more to this story.

Lately, Mays' 23-year-old son, Billy Mays III, has been working at Sullivan's production company.

Right now, the 23-year-old musician isn't interested in following his father's path as a pitchman. "He has his father's soul, but he's his own man in his own way," said Sullivan.

Even as Sullivan hawks Mays' former brands, the Mays family will continue to get a cut of the proceeds from sales.

"Every time I say, 'Hi, Anthony Sullivan here,' I always think it should be 'Hi, Billy Mays here,' the pitchman confides."But the bottom line is, he's not here. So I'm honored to be carrying on his legacy a little bit."