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A hard column to write

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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.

Comments (27)

  • Bob,

    So sorry for your loss … obviously you are quite proud of your dad … and I guarantee he was quite proud of you …

    Scott Eckenrode, long long time reader, original book owner, huge fan to this day of your writing …

  • Bob,
    Sorry to hear about your family’s loss.
    Your Dad’s book will be a must read. As I am revamping my web site, I’m sure I’ll find many gems in his book to assist me.
    As always, continued success and keep your copy coming . . . Jim

  • I’m very sorry for your loss – not many kids are fortunate to have a Dad like yours. And I definitely like KJR better.

  • Bob…Sorry to hear of your Dad’s passing. He did a great job raising you. This article will be in my annual “to review” stack. He will live on…at least in my stack…maybe that’s a horror movie in itself. Lance.

  • Bob,

    Sorry for your loss. It is nice that your father had a rich long life and influenced you in a very positive way. He and your family were very blessed.


  • Fist my condolences to you and your loved ones. Second I raise my glass and make a toast to a great man and a life well lived!!!

  • I feel for you on the loss of your father. The realization will last forever. You will always miss himl I know since I lost my father at age 89 many years ago. He was a wise intelligent business man who taught me that the customer is king. He was a produce wholesaler, but he would spend hours at a small grocery rearranging their produce to sell better. He spent hours talking to chefs convincing them to buy less expensive items during the off-season. He knew his business and was driven to make his customers a success. I still miss him every day.

  • My sincere condolences at your father’s passing. May he rest, not in pieces, but in peace. He sounds like he was a great guy who will be missed by many. I wish you and your family the strength and comfort of friends and loved ones.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. My father passed on March 11 of this year, and I too have been spending time thinking about what I learned from him. He was a jack-of-all-trades, but particularly excelled in sales. He was a master of negative salesmanship – “I don’t know why you’d want this piece of junk, but if you do it’s $1500. If you come back tomorrow it will be $1600. The next day it will be $1700.” He actually sold a car for me where the guy came back four days after first seeing it and paid an extra $400 for “the delay.”

    Hold him in your heart, keep him in your thoughts, and he will go forward with you.

    John Pfeifer

  • Thank you for an excellent column written. Having experienced a similar time in my life, I can also admire your ability to do so under these conditions. I believe that your Dad would be proud and your children will continue to learn from valuable examples.

  • Sorry to hear of your father’s death, Bob. But after reading your column, I certainly have respect for him and his life! My condolences to you and your family.

  • Hi Bob,

    I was saddened to hear of your father’s passing. I lost my own father over 20 years ago, but it still feels like yesterday. You have my heart felt condolences.

    I thought you might get a kick out of this coincidence though. I’ve been an avid reader of (and occasional commenter on) your column for enough years that I’ve lost count. I had no idea until today’s KJR who your father was. After reading your column about him, I texted my son (who has a curious fascination with gore and splatter films… and the DVD collection to prove it) and asked if he’d ever heard of your father. It was like turning on the ‘fan boy’ beacon! He just started gushing about what a film pioneer your father was! (Was he really from Pittsburgh?)

    So it seems that while I’ve been admiring your work, my son has been admiring your dad’s. Who’d have guessed?

    Best regards,

    • Well, I can’t claim to know from first-hand experience that he was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but that’s what he told me.

      Please give your son my regards, and encouragement to seek professional help!

  • So sorry to hear of your father’s passing. Best regards to you and your family.

  • Very sorry for your loss. A nice tribute, and he would likely have been glad to give you an excuse to dispense business advice.

  • Bob, you have my sincere condolences. Thank you so much for all you share with us, making us a very extended family. I am quite sure your dad was proud of your business acumen as well!

  • My very sincere condolences on your loss. Your article speaks volumes about your love for your dad. I was reminded how you must feel earlier this week, when we dug up and re-buried my brother at the Mpls. Jewish Cemetary. A six month saga that proves there is humor to be found in anything!(not to mention how correct we were in refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement). Shana Tova

  • Your father sounded like a remarkable, fascinating man. I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m glad you had so many wonderful years to enjoy each other – two bright, interesting, accomplished people.

    My parents are gone. As someone said to me, you don’t get over it but you do get used to it.

  • So sorry for your loss. My dad passed away a long time ago, but he didn’t have nearly the notoriety of yours. Always enjoy your column. Keep it up. Many thanx.

  • Bob- I’m very sorry about the passing of your dad. He has a whole new audience to share his movie and ad stories with now. While your dad may have been a tough act to follow, everyone has to chart their own course and your articles (even back in paper form) are thoroughly insightful and, I appreciate the humor. Thank you.

  • My condolences for the loss of your father. If you are even half as good a person as your columns are, he did a great job, as a father.

    And, thank you, for sharing his 2 great pearls of wisdom. It was great for me to see those, at this time. And, peace be unto you and your family at your father’s passing.

  • Your dad really must have been a fascinating person as a dad and a person to learn from. When growing up, I knew stimulating fathers of friends and loved to hear them expound. Having great memories of parents is a gift we all can cherish.

    Thanks for devoting a column to him. Among other subjects it speaks well of yourself.

    Pete Huberth

  • This week’s article is a wonderful testament to your dad. You did a great job of honoring him and sharing with us all. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • My heartfelt condolences for your loss. A good article and wonderful way of respecting your father. My prayers for you and your family.

  • Great tribute to your Dad. Sorry for your loss.

  • Saddened to hear of your dad’s passing. I found the story of his life interesting, thanks for sharing it.

  • I am sorry for you loss.

    I had not idea of your connection to greatness. I have not heard of “Blood Feast” or “2000 Maniacs” since college.

    A great tribute.

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