Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Interview: Alistair Duff

Sales guru Alistair Duff believes buying patterns are changing. Trips to shopping malls, for example, are on the wane. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sales guru Alistair Duff believes buying patterns are changing. Trips to shopping malls, for example, are on the wane. Photo / Greg Bowker

The boss of the new Shopping Channel is legendary for talking, lunching and - above all - selling ads

Cellphone rings. Click. "Alistair", intones the recorded message. Except it is not a recorded message. I wait for the voice to tell me that Alistair can't come to the phone right now but instead a human says, "Hello?" I thought you were an automated voice response, I told him. "Some say I am," said a cheery voice which is not a machine after all but is quite possibly a sales phenomenon.

A spy had said Alistair Duff is legendary for talking, lunching and drinking and for packaging up all of these into a single four-letter word: SELL. He's headed sales teams at TV3 and TVNZ and is now boss of The Shopping Channel, which launches on Sky on October 1.

Duff lost no time demonstrating some of those skills when we met at a Kingsland cafe. The Shopping Channel, apparently, is an idea whose time has come. There will be proper demos of products hosted by real dinkum Kiwis (as opposed to slick TV presenter types).

Former Auckland Warrior and boxer Monty Beetham and dancer Candy Lane are two of those dinkum Kiwis. Some of the aforementioned slick presenters were among the 400 who auditioned but Duff said smooth professionalism might work for the news but seemed like detachment when it came to flogging product on the telly.

They've hired all sorts, apparently, including a banker. They all have what Duff called "natural personality'. "Like Steve Price," said Duff. Like Duff, perhaps.

The channel will run 24 hours, with eight of them live. Which might be fun, given the bold and brassy Lane's ribald sense of humour. She was hired as a dance consultant on Dancing With The Stars but ended up in a co-host role on the live and mostly unscripted show. The producer called her (in the nicest possible way) "a naughty little witch", and the anchor, Jason Gunn, said Lane would be the hottest host in the country if there was ever a Dancing With the Stars: After Dark. You get the picture.

Duff seemed well pleased. "That [personality] needs to come out," he said. "We'll have more bloopers than anyone else. We've got as many live hours as TV One so they are going to say things, they are going to get into terrible situations and that will make them. People will get that."

They'll also get, said Duff, the full demo on how to operate the flat-screen TV (or whatever) that the shop assistant can't do or is too busy to do. If you forget, call the demo up again on video on demand. Order online and the product is whizzed to your door. He rattled off data and anecdotes with hardly a pause. Two million Kiwis bought via the internet last year. Trips to the mall are on the wane. Convenience and convergence are what it's all about. His daughter and her friends buy their shoes online. Parking at the mall is a pain. Half the women surveyed in some or other poll said so. And a good whack of them insisted the spaces had shrunk. "I thought, 'That finally verifies all my perceptions on women drivers!"' said Duff.

And then came the point. "So, we're not creating a market, it's already there." What they are doing, said Duff, is "completing the circle". I think that means The Shopping Channel will showcase the stuff.

Duff said he is a compulsive buyer, an ideal victim of a shopping channel. He is wearing a very smart suit. Bought online, was it? Ah, no. His suits are made to measure by High St tailors Crane Brothers. But, of course, he had a good story. It's his "great Polynesian frame". If he bought off the rack, the trousers would be about "size 60 to fit my jacket", he said. "Even when the trousers were taken in I looked like I walked in a sack."

You suspect Duff could talk the hind leg off a donkey and then sell it back to said donkey. He argued that he is just being himself.

And who might that be?

That question involved a longish story about growing up the son of a Samoan mum (Dad is Glaswegian) during the infamous dawn raids of the 1970s. It's about identity and Samoan shyness (from which he has never suffered). "It was a bit like being an Arab after 9/11," he said. He claimed his pen portrait in the magazine of his Catholic college said: "Class cool dude and overstayer".

That's how it was in 1977, he shrugs. His mum would get young Duff to speak for her at the shops and at the Bingo hall. "If she won, I'd have to put my hand up and call out, 'Bingo!"' They must have been quite a combination, his shy mum and the boy who "just talked to people", who said he didn't realise he was Samoan till the dawn raids.

His son goes to the same school, where the islanders are undefeated in lunchtime "pollies-versus-non-pollies rugby games". "Thing is," said Duff, "now everyone wants to be a Polynesian."

Asked whether salesmen are born or made, he said: "I just get along with people." And, "sales is just talking to people." Duff insisted he'd be the most non-corporate person imaginable and yet he'd spent most of his working life in that corporate world. What about the art of the long boozy lunch? That sounds a bit 1980s corporate.

His favourite spot while at TVNZ, a nearby French cafe, is facing ruin now he's moved on or so the joke goes. "He can drink huge amounts and not turn a hair," said the spy. Duff concurred. He'd never had a hangover, his behaviour never changed whether tanked or sober. "There used to be a saying at TVNZ," said Duff, looking rather pleased, "that you had been 'Duffed'." The term, he explained, was something about "having the stamina and resilience required in an industry" where alcohol is consumed in the line of duty.

He'd seen some people blow their careers saying things they wish they hadn't while under the influence. "I guess I've just been lucky. Beer or water, my behaviour is the same." He loves the social side of sales. "That's where you get an insight into what people are really about," he said.

Sales tip: be a champion talker and have a cast-iron constitution. Were Duff to write a how-to book he could call it, Talk. Drink. Laugh. SELL. He seemed to know everyone, the spy said, but not only that, he also knew their whakapapa who they were connected to and how. Duff proved the point in the first five minutes of the interview by mentioning half a dozen people we both know.

Then he talked about his craft, which he said boiled down to finding solutions for clients, about his satisfaction watching a programme like MasterChef knowing his work funded it. "At the end of the day you make some money, but that's not my driver. My driver is thinking about an idea, crafting it and getting it over the line."

Why leave such a rewarding, safe, lucrative job as TVNZ's general manager of media sales to go to a shopping channel? Duff talked about what he'd learned about success from being an avid reader of biographies: "Vision ... titanium balls ... timing and luck." The balls, he said, belong to Ogilvy adman Greg Partington, whose dosh is behind the channel.

Duff, of course, was already successful. He'd planted the idea of the channel with Partington, having seen the rise of shopping channels overseas, but might not have jumped from his big mainstream telly job had the opportunity come up two years ago. The timing just became right. He'd been at TVNZ 10 years, his marriage to another sales executive had broken up and (though he wasn't suggesting they were connected) the last little piece of self-doubt had gone.

Not that anyone would ever say the smooth-talking salesman ever lacked confidence. Not as the kid yelling "Bingo" on his mum's behalf, or the young Kiwi on his OE in England being interviewed for his first TV job. Did he have A and O levels, he was asked. "Oh, yeah, got them," replied Duff, who left school with 6th form certificate "I didn't know about equivalents of A levels and O levels. I just knew it was a huge opportunity and once I got in there I just drove myself."

It sounds like someone who always had the gift of the gab and confidence to boot. And that applies whether at work or play.

When he stopped talking shop, Duff told of his upcoming annual lads' trip to a rugby test. Seems they adopt the persona of doctors and get up to all sorts of high jinks, which can get them into spots that require a talent for smooth talk to get out of. Like in Wellington when Dr Darkhorse, Dr Botox (who really is a doctor) and Duff, "The Samoan Attorney" (from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), were asked about their medical specialties while freeloading drinks at a conference for real doctors. "We've been talking shop for three days," came the reply. "Today is about the rugby!"

Duff would say it's all about getting on with people, "because what you are really selling is never the product, it's yourself."

I came away thinking what an enter-taining bloke he is. Which probably means I'd just been "Duffed". And all we drank was coffee.

- NZ Herald

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