Women in Business Q&A: Collette Liantonio, President, Concept TV Productions, Inc.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post on December 11, 2014

By: Laura Dunn, Social Media and Communications Professional, Founder and Editor of Political Style, Director of LED Media, Journalist and Author

Collette Liantonio launched Concepts TV Productions Inc. in 1983. Since then, she has produced over 3,000 commercials and infomercials, many of which have become advertising legends, including: AmberVision Glasses, Bedazzler, and The George Foreman Grill. She has also worked with some of the top talent in the industry, producing spots featuring Montel Williams, Joe Namath, George Foreman, Fabio and Wayne Gretsky, among many others.

Liantonio has been a direct response television (DRTV) industry leader for over 30 years. She has won countless ERA Moxie Awards (recognizing the best campaigns of the year), Aurora Awards (international television advertisements), and Telly Awards (honoring the best television commercials and programs), among others. She produces commercials in a range of important categories including fitness, toys, beauty, hair, pets and housewares.

Prior to starting Concepts TV, Liantonio was a single parent who found time to become a successful freelance writer after earning a masters of arts in directing from NYU. When a client purchased a direct response company and invited her to direct a commercial, Liantonio jumped at the opportunity. She worked for an advertising agency in Manhattan for a brief time before signing her first client to start Concepts TV Productions.

Liantonio is on Electronic Retailing Magazine’s Advisory Board and has served twice on the Electronic Retailing Association’s (ERA) Board of Directors. In 2014, she co-founded the Broadcast Council of the Direct Response Marketing Association and was elected into the 2014 Direct Response Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame. She is a member of the Women President’s Organization, the Woman’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and the Women-Owned Business Enterprise for New York City (WBE).

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My career path began as a teacher and, after a series of false starts in various businesses, led to my true passion, creative directing. Whether it’s my experience as a teacher or as a director, I always feel an incredible responsibility to help my staff become fully actualized, to utilize their talents to attain happiness. Happy people make happy employees and happy employees are productive ones. I feel very passionate about finding the right fit for one’s self and nurturing talents in a positive environment.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Concepts?
I studied theatre and I believe in the collective power of the theatre company. No one person is the star or rather the star could not shine without the efforts of the director, the stage manager, each actor, etc. (And there’s always a well-prepared understudy!) Rather than feeling threatened, we should take comfort when we are surrounded by capability and draw from one another’s strengths for the common goal of a “successful show.”

Some of my best lessons in leadership came as a result of my own personal experiences with “bad bosses.” For example, when I commended one company president for hiring female department heads, he boasted that he could pay us half of what he’d pay less talented men in the same position. In fact, in lieu of a raise, he once offered me a percent of proceeds if the project was successful. When success was achieved, he reneged on our agreement, asking me to produce a signed contract, which of course I did not have. (So much for handshakes!) He claimed it was a valuable lesson. In a way, it was. For starters, I learned to get everything in writing!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Concepts?
I once turned a financial negative into a lucrative positive. During a very slow period in our company’s history, I decided to approach my clients with an offer to reduce my upfront fee in return for a percentage of sales. The results were explosive and, to this day, I have “skin in the game” with a royalty structure most clients gladly welcome.

Tuning into one of my late night ads, like Smart Mop or Bedazzler, and realizing I earned money every time the ad aired was a true “ah-hah” moment and helped me to better understand my entrepreneurial clients. Not only did I gain insight, I gained a profitable financial strategy that I still practice to this day, because I chose to problem solve rather than panic. In business, there will be good times and bad times. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in advertising?
Is it a man’s world?! When I look back on my career, I can attest that I’ve learned as much from failures as I have from successes. It’s important to take risks, to be fearless. If we, as women, want to be successful, we need to support one another in our goals and aspirations. Therefore, it is imperative for female leaders to share their collective knowledge and experiences, so we can all continue to grow and triumph in a “man’s world”.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Now that my children are adults and my parents have passed away, maintaining a balance between work and home has become much easier. But I remember the childrearing years as a frantic juggling act, too many balls in the air and the gnawing feeling that I was bound to drop one of them. Late night phone calls and location shoots take their toll on family life. I worked from home for many years and still shoot commercials in my home. My children didn’t always appreciate having actors and a camera crew of “strangers” in the house. In fact, once while shooting a commercial for Contour Pillow, my then 7-year-old daughter reported to her father that there was a “man in your bed wearing your pajamas, Daddy”. Daddy responded, “I’m used to that with your mother.” Having a spouse who appreciates a professional career-oriented woman is imperative. And if he has a sense of humor, even better!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
No matter how supportive a husband may be, I can certainly empathize with the many women who acknowledge that when a woman has a husband and children, she ends up as her last priority. Missed workouts, missed hair and nail appointments and a scarcity of down time to hang with girlfriends or read a book. It seems like being a good mother, a good wife and a good daughter all trump personal time. But if my years have taught me anything, it’s to take time for yourself. When you take care of you, you are a better mother, a better wife and a better daughter. Ask for help when needed. It’s not a sign of weakness, but of strength. It’s also delegation, which is an important managerial skill.

In my observation, the biggest issue in the workplace is that we aren’t trained to lead and take the necessary risks that enable us to rise to the top. Watch how women play cards. (My friend Ellen Leikind of Poker Divas pointed this out.) We don’t gamble even when we have all the cards. We don’t play like men, who boldly venture regardless of preparedness. We play it safe. No risk, no reward.

When it comes to dealing with male colleagues, we still focus on playing “nicely” with the boys, taking a supportive, helpful backseat role. Don’t offend or rock the boat. Sadly, we are often competitive “Mean Girls” when we interact with female colleagues.

With more women participating in sports and a generation of men raised by businesswomen, I see this business landscape changing, but we still have a long way to go to reach the top and I think mentorship could help pave the way to the summit.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I was never mentored by a business leader. Most female executives in the past were “dragon ladies”. The path to the top was not conducive to the responsibilities and obligations of a single mom. I was always willing to work long hours – just not the same hours required by most corporations. The typical compartmentalized corporate structure suffocated my creativity and the commute to NYC from the suburbs was the deathblow. Being an entrepreneur enabled me to concentrate on my creativity and enabled me to work with creatives of my choosing. I created my own path which I’m incredibly proud of. But it would’ve been nice to have someone guide me along the way or at least cheer me on.

What do you want Concepts to accomplish in the next year?
I have been blessed with a career that has taken me around the world. I have witnessed products that make life easier for everyone and generate income for hundreds, even thousands of people along the supply chain. I have seen our creative efforts realized internationally – turning on a TV in Bangkok and seeing a commercial we made in NJ. I still get a kick out of the “As Seen on TV” shelves in the stores and turning my little commercial creations into household names and advertising legends.

I’ve directed some of the greatest characters in ad history like Jack LaLanne, Billy Mays, Donald Trump and athletes like Joe Namath, Wayne Gretsky, John McEnroe, etc. My company has won countless awards. I have even experienced the incredible rush of seeing someone else’s dreams come true. In fact, it’s that thrill of watching inventors realize their American Dream that continues to motivate me. What happens when all your dreams come true? Make new ones!

This next year will be a banner year for Concepts as more mainstream companies embrace “brandmercials” and sell directly to the consumer. We are elevating our commercials to compete with mainstream ad agencies and succeeding in selling directly to the consumer in greater numbers, using more multichannel strategies. It is my goal and my mission to elevate the perception of the Direct Response industry. And I will do so by taking risks and, as always, learning from successes and failures.

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