Never in doubt was the presence of creativity. What Bill McAlister wondered was whether a sales sensation was in the room. Something, say, like Hot Buns - the miracle worker for hair, mind you, not sagging buttocks.
Or the buckwheat-filled Sobokawa Pillow. Or Urine Gone. Or Mighty Putty.
They're behind the more than $2 billion in "As Seen on TV" sales that McAlister, president of Top Dog Direct in Trevose, has helped ring up by bringing products from inventors' workshops to shoppers' carts during his more than 25 years in the direct-response-television industry.
"I guarantee you, everybody who's out there who's actually watching this has bought something from me," McAlister said last week during the making of a video posted at Inquirer.com that accompanies this column.
Those products were found by tracking down inventions, usually by trying to hit every consumer-based show in the United States and abroad, said McAlister, 55, of Washington Crossing.
Late last week, the marketing guru and former QVC on-air pitchman tried something new: He invited those who think they have products with must-have appeal to come to him.
Depending on how things went Thursday morning at the "Speed Pitch" event at Philadelphia's Independence Visitor Center, McAlister's plan was to take his Shark Tank-ish hunt to other U.S. cities.
Philly did not disappoint. From nearby neighborhoods and states as distant as Alabama and Indiana, 20 hopefuls turned out in the city that inspired the inventor of all inventors, Benjamin Franklin.
There were no kite-and-key contraptions. But there were: a solar-powered air freshener, sunglasses with compartments to hold medication and money, a leg support that relieves lower-back pain, a mirror to help see, ahem, body regions otherwise difficult to glimpse, a bib for grown-ups, and more.
"We expected great things, and the city and region delivered," McAlister said after the three-plus-hour event he judged with Steve Silbiger, Top Dog's chief marketing officer; Erica Meloni, the company's vice president of new product development; and WHYY's innovations reporter, Zack Seward.
The event was a debut of sorts for Top Dog, too. The name was adopted this year, he said, to encompass two McAlister-affiliated companies - Media Enterprises Inc. and Plymouth Direct - and eliminate a confusing identity issue.
In a $35 billion-a-year industry - including QVC and Home Shopping Network - and amid ever-increasing competition for television viewers' attention, there's no time for confusion, said McAlister, who heads a company of seven employees.
"It's all about the next product," he said. "What happens is these products all die. [Think Pet Rock and Ronco Vegematic.] "They all have a shelf life, and you have to find the next one."
It must meet two key conditions: solve a problem and be priced right, McAlister said. Since the economic collapse of 2008, that ideal price point is $10, down from $20, he said.
Once Top Dog finds a promising product, it acquires licensing rights to it, then produces a two-minute commercial and buys airtime. If an item is a hit on TV, getting it in stores follows.
Top Dog pays inventors a percentage of each sale, said McAlister, adding: "I'm of the firm belief that the deal has to be good for everyone involved."
It has been for Taylor Baldwin, the San Diego TV news anchor and mother of four daughters who also birthed Hot Buns.
Sales of the springy grips that achieve hair buns without pins have reached 3 million units - at $10 per pack of three. They are carried by Target, Walmart, and practically every drugstore chain and beauty-supply store, Baldwin said, praising McAlister's respect of inventors and his treatment of their products as "king."
"I'm floored that I could think of something . . . and it's selling on store shelves and they can't keep it in stock," she said in a phone interview.
Such is the dream of all who made their pilgrimage to Top Dog's pitch event last week. Whether any of their products prove as scorching as Hot Buns remains to be seen.
No deals were inked Thursday, but McAlister had encouraging words for several, including South Jersey's Tony and Mike Gelzinis and their sister Teri Enoch, all in their 50s.
They created and patented Stepball, a game involving a portable stoop and modeled after something they played as kids on the streets of Feltonville. McAlister referred them to a game manufacturer.
South Philly's Maria Merlino drew praise and laughs for her animated introduction of a bib measuring 15 inches across and 30 inches long for sloppy adults: Gribon!!!, for grown-up bib.
"Love the pitch," McAlister said. "It's a mail-order item. I'm not sure it's TV. It's really cool, though."
Also "cool" but not direct-response material, McAlister said, was Solairy, the solar-powered air freshener demonstrated by Michael Zatuchni of Chesterbrook.
A design consultant for Home Depot, Zatuchni departed undeterred: "I can't wait to prove them wrong."
Bill McAlister, president of Top Dog Direct, on searching for the next great invention. www.inquirer.com/business