Herschell Gordon Lewis, my dad, passed away peacefully last week. He was 90 years old.
Dad had a personality that filled a room. Beyond that he was widely read, scary smart, charming, and persuasive, from my earliest childhood memories right up to the end.
His passing includes a nice irony.
We informed a few of Dad’s closest business associates Dad was gone. Somehow James Gunn, of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, noticed and Tweeted, “RIP Herschell Gordon Lewis, the creator of splatter films & the director of Blood Feast & 2000 Maniacs. He changed cinema.”
Within a day Dad was all over the Internet, including articles in the New York Times and the entertainment trade publication Variety. In its article, Variety proudly quoted its own 1963 review of Blood Feast, the world’s first splatter movie: a “totally inept shocker” that was “an insult even to the most puerile and salacious of audiences,” with a “senseless” screenplay and “amateurish” acting.
(Dad would, I’m sure, have taken issue with the last complaint. He’d have denied Blood Feast contained acting of any kind. Acting wasn’t really the point. Neither was the plot. In Dad’s movies the plot was just there to provide excuses for the gore scenes.)
Dad went viral in a day. The irony? Dad — who in his later years was, quite literally, the Great Guru Of Direct Marketing — was a social media marketing skeptic until the day he died.
In case you think I’m being disrespectful of my father and his important oeuvre, let me reassure you: Dad didn’t even once take himself or his contributions seriously. For example, to this day I recall listening to him on a radio interview when I was a kid. Asked what sorts of audience went to see his movies, Dad answered, “We don’t really know. Nobody has developed techniques for surveying IQs that low.”
I also recall brainstorming new gore scenes around the family dinner table. Mom was appalled. I was proud as could be: Dad used one of my suggestions in 2000 Maniacs.
My daughter Erin gets the last word on this front. From her Facebook page: “My wonderful grandfather peacefully passed away this morning, (luckily not in the manner that his movies portrayed).”
* * *
Something I didn’t appreciate about my father in my younger days was his business acumen.
For Dad, making movies was first and last a business, which is why he exited the business without a trace of regret, shortly after Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 release of The Wild Bunch, in which death was, for the first time in Hollywood history, messy.
Only Peckinpah had a Hollywood-sized special effects budget. Dad realized his chicken-skin + mortician’s wax + butcher-shop-sourced organs + Kaopectate-based stage blood effects had just become obsolete.
Not all business executives recognize when their business model has run its course. Dad did, and so exited the Godfather of Gore, and entered the Great Guru of Direct Marketing.
Some examples of my father’s expertise have been reported in this space already. For example, he was an excellent, if self-taught, project manager (see “The Godfather of Gore on Project Management, Part I” and “Part II.” Also, he licensed use of his should-be-satirical-but-sadly-isn’t business strategy, Customer Elimination Management (CEM) — CRM’s evil twin — to KJR.
Over a forty-year span, dozens of books, hundreds of articles in trade publications, and 2004 induction into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame (yes, there is such a thing!) he relentlessly promoted three core principles.
The first: word choice matters. If persuasion is in your job description (if you’re a manager, it is), do yourself a favor: Buy a copy of Herschell Gordon Lewis on the Art of Writing Copy.
Just about every business would do well to adopt the other two principles.
Like: Always focus on customer benefit. As a copywriter, he put customer benefit front and center always. No, this isn’t a complicated concept. And yet, Dad amassed a staggeringly large collection of advertisements that didn’t answer a prospective customer’s most basic question: What’s in it for me?
As a management consultant I can testify that many businesses don’t include customer benefit in their business strategies. According to my unscientific sample, the larger the enterprise, the less likely it is.
And finally, a principle all direct marketers understand, but sadly not all business executives: test. Logical analysis is nice, but it has its limits. Test.
In Dad’s case, testing meant sending out multiple versions of the same mailing to a statistically significant sample, and comparing response rates. To e-tailers it means presenting different layouts or messages to different website visitors and comparing the resulting purchase rates.
In ConsultantSpeak it means fail forward.
Dad was, in retrospect, a helluva good businessman. And he gave me serious bragging rights when I was a kid.
Tough act to follow, though.