Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Snippets Spring 2014

To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.
-Benjamin Franklin

 Everybody had an opinion. The biggest surprise to me, however, was how markedly different many of the viewpoints are. No single comment necessarily defines the direction of the business, and some directly conflict with each other, of course even in the best of times there will be radically different perspectives among people holding essentially identical positions in the industry. But it’s clear things are happening out there. We are hearing about product hits and company cutbacks in the same day. The need for new licensed art and the decision to go in-house, both coming from companies that are direct competitors. So the question is: What’s the take-away from all this?

Let me know when you figure it out.

“We really don’t want to look through an artist’s entire portfolio, we want them to send us some of their art made into our products.”     – a creative director

“They have been making the same stuff for going on 15 years now and it’s starting to fade away.”  - a sales manager about the company

“Cheap sells. It has to be good but it can’t be expensive.” – owner of a gift company

“People don’t want icons now, no central themes, it’s more of a simple look built from texture and color, maybe with some vintage materials.”
- an art director

“It’s definitely not just us, there has been a softening industry wide.” – a sales manager

“We have to be really, really sold on the concept. Have to be, or we cannot make the investment.” – owner of a gift company

“Our showroom bill is 15 thousand, plus thousands more in travel, hotels, shipping and personnel expenses – then we write only three decent orders during the first three days we’re open? How is that worth it?”  - a marketing director at the Dallas show

“I hate all this inspirational crap. You are going to get your life’s meaning from a saying on a coaster? Get real.” – a manufacturer (who sells some inspirational crap)

 “Why would I pay out 7 or 8 thousand dollars to meet with someone who wants to do a 3 dollar notecard line with me?”             - an artist explaining why she no longer does Surtex

“The last 6 months have been terrible. I really don’t know where the future of the gift industry is going to be, people are offloading all their clutter because their kids don’t have any interest in it either.”   – a sales rep

“We loved it but apparently it’s too perfect, we think we need to “rough” it up a bit to get it to sell”.  – a mfr about a (beautiful!) product line

“I can only take so much Christmas before I go cuckoo!”
– a retailer overheard in the hallway

“The owners of the mom and pop gift stores are aging out of the business, and when they can’t sell the stores they are closing them down. We have lost 600 in the last 3 years – that’s 3 to 4 a week off the books.” – owner of a gift company

“This kind of stuff we can do in-house; we pay royalties for unique work we don’t do in-house.” – an art director

“Tiny little attention spans – that’s the biggest problem with our industry now. ” – an agent

“I get it, but the people we sell to, the shop owners, they are mostly older women and they will NOT get it. So they won’t buy it.”
– a mfr about a social media based line

“I could be interested as long as it’s not being sold at WalMart.”        – a retailer to a rep in a showroom

“She’s not here this time, she got a real job.” – overheard in a showroom

Rep: “Can I show you the new (famous artist name) products?”
Retailer: “Uh, yeah… not really, we’re kinda over (famous artist name)”.  - overheard in a showroom

“We like the way her mind works.” – art director about a favorite artist

“We had 400 skus to work with and corporate has chopped that in half, so we have had to make some tough choices about what goes forward.” – a sales manager about line reductions

“No figures. People do not sell for us.” – a manufacturer about a collection

“It’s OK. Traffic is a little light but maybe that will pick up. Sales are up a little but there does not seem to be any buzz in the market. It’s just… OK.” – a showroom rep in ATL

“Nothing is a real trend right now, so we have to do everything to see what works.” – a gift manufacturer

Ronnie: “How’s the show going?”
Rep: “Well, I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated disaster…”
Ronnie: “So, it’s a mitigated one?”
Rep: “Sure, let’s go with that.”

“Yeah, everybody wants new – right up until they get it.” – an art director

“We tried some of her stuff and it didn’t sell well enough to reorder, so anything new will really have to knock our socks off.”
– owner of a gift company

“It can’t be too complicated for the retailer to sell, they don’t have the time or the personnel to explain things to their customers.”         – owner of a gift company

And finally, what all of us in this business should be pondering pretty much all of the time…

"The question is: what are we going to put in the window next time that will bring people in? THAT is what we are searching for.”
– a licensing director

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Atlanta: Land of Opportunity, or What's Yours Is Mine...

Find a bunch of timeworn phrases on the internet, stencil them onto all shapes and sizes of wall plaques (wood, metal, burlap, ceramic or what have you), then maybe add a few chevrons and anchors here and there. Multiply that by a few hundred companies, some indistinguishable from others, and you’ve got the recent Atlanta gift market.


Obviously there might be a few additional items to be found among the 7 million square feet of showrooms, but the place is overrun with words on walls. It just can’t last, people, so if you are working on yet another “words on walls” project you may want to ponder how yours will be noticeably new and different, or even head in a different direction. IMHO.

We spent 3 long days covering A LOT of those 7M square feet. The doom and gloom of Dallas (see the previous post) was not so evident in Atlanta, perhaps because it’s a better show even on its down days, but traffic was definitely slow. We found ourselves alone on elevators in the gift building four different times, and that’s notable because it NEVER happens, normally you can barely get on them at all (and these are big elevators). Easy parking in the ramps, empty corridors and escalators, no lines in the ladies room, leftover free lunch in the showrooms and Market Clubs – all are reliable signs that the retailers went missing. And as always, clients were having varied results – some reported good business, some not so good, but most landed on “it’s OK”. That was definitely the word of the week: Okay.

 The move into accessories by the gift companies has not only continued but expanded into apparel products. Seems like everybody has sparkly stuff, and now some of them are showing jackets and tops too. It also seems like celebrity licensing has lost its luster - whereas the last few years had us tripping over appearance announcements on easels and shaking our heads over weird product endorsement combos, this year most of that was conspicuously absent. (And, as in Dallas, Duck Dynasty is pretty much nowhere to be found). Perhaps we’ll be heading back to good design and quality product ideas again? What a novel idea…

One disconcerting trend is the increased number of “me too” collections found throughout the Mart. It has always been routine for companies to produce a line similar to what is successful at other companies, but we spotted many that were SO close we had to go examine them for artist credit. (Which is not there of course…). Bad news for all concerned but there just is not much remarkable among the new intros, so they are resorting to what has been proven elsewhere. The good news for designers, as I have said before, is that there is a BIG deficit in the market – the opportunities for fresh, original thinking partnered with market-wise execution are huge. Put your thinking caps on. 

People tend to try and judge a show as either good or bad, while in reality they are ALL good to some degree. Stuff gets sold and shipped out to the stores, and we get to talk with clients, see loads of new product and stimulate our idea machine just by attending, so it’s always worthwhile. The market may have been a little quiet for the showrooms, however we came back from this trip buzzing with what-ifs, and now is the time to set those ideas down on paper and start work. January will be here before we know it!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dallas, Tell Me It Ain't So!

We have just returned from five days in the great nation of Texas, and as much as I enjoy spending time there it is always nice to get back to the jungles of Florida. We covered all the Dallas Market buildings top to bottom, talked to a lot of people, and learned a few things:

- Crowded parking lots and long lines at the ladies rooms do not automatically translate into good orders for the exhibitors.

- Duck Dynasty, the hot license last year, is dead and buried in the gift industry. Fine by me.

- “Me too” design and product lines are everywhere, both at the designer and the manufacturer levels.

- The highly touted and exciting gift industry “recovery” of the last year didn’t happen.

- The Dallas-Ft Worth Metroplex is continuing to grow at an obscene rate and will one day cover the entire planet.

While the Dallas show is not nearly the size of Atlanta, most of the big players have showrooms and the rest are represented somewhere in the buildings, so it’s a good place to get an early read on the market. What we did not expect was the language we kept hearing - evaluate, retrench, slow, reduce exposure, wait and see, soft market - all those words that strike fear into the hearts of designers and agents. Say what? Yes, there has been this elusive uneasiness hanging in the background, it’s a bit quiet but weren’t we all convinced that it had turned around? Of course, it wasn’t all bad news, we did get some business done, saw some of our new product and now have a better focus for the upcoming Atlanta market – but it will be very interesting to see what the consensus is going to be there. 


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Days of Wine and Roses

Someone said to me once, about being rejected, “It’s a lot easier for you guys because you are agents and you really don’t care.” Aw, come on, I’m not THAT mean! While it’s true we have grown some pretty thick skin over the years, we really do care about the art, the concepts and the designers, however to thrive we have learned to put those "no's" behind us and to keep on movin’. It’s a great business to be in but that comment got me thinking about all those other “things” that pop up… the things that are not all wine and roses, like…

(cue the blurry dream sequence)

Trying to explain to our licensee that yes, we had submitted that same design to their competitor, but no, we did NOT give them permission to manufacture something with it…

Reviewing a portfolio that is filled with perfectly presented but awful designs and knowing that 1) they worked their tail off creating it, and 2) then paid somebody to teach them how to present it…

Going back to the artist with yet another change request, or worse, going back to the client with a refusal to change it – all the while knowing that either one is going to kill the project…

Learning that your favorite product director has left a company and is now replaced by one from another company – one who would never give you the time of day…

Having to tell an artist that the client has changed their mind and now they are not going forward, even after the many requested changes….

Explaining that we really do need more new concepts from you even though (actually because) we have not been able to license the ones we already have…

Not having a ready explanation for why, since the other five submissions to this client did not go anywhere, you should submit something new the sixth time…

Not being able to explain why the best license we ever signed for you only paid royalties for one quarter…

Having to end a designer/agency relationship when you really like them as a person but the professional part of the relationship is just not working out…

Seeing the full header on a big client’s Design Call email because they forgot to BCC everyone, and counting 67 competitors… and worse yet, knowing that they send those emails out in batches so there are actually many more…

Looking at the trade show invoice and wondering how 35.00 a square foot is now 50.00 a square foot, and also wondering if you actually get any ROI from it…

Looking at every design you see through Licensing Goggles – which can really take some of the fun out of art fairs, galleries, others people’s walls and shopping...

 These are just a few of the situations that tend to make us squirm - but I’m not whining here, just giving you a peek over the neighbor’s fence at the dandelions. Every biz has it’s up and down moments, however, when all is said product licensing is a career with lots of rewarding moments - regardless of which side of the fence you are on.

Just don't ask me to make two of these calls in a row!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Fire Yourself!

There’s an interesting story about the early days of Intel back when they were primarily a memory chip manufacturer. They were starting to get hammered by the cheaper Asian chips and the CEO sat down with the Chairman to discuss what to do. They discussed what would happen if they were fired – what actions would the new incoming CEO take? They would probably get out of the chip market was the conclusion, and so they made some adjustments, switching priorities to growing their microprocessor business and the rest is history.

It’s a worthwhile exercise for anyone in business, from the individual working alone to someone running an established company – if you were let go, what would a newcomer, a turn-around exec with a mandate to clean house do with (to?) your business? Take a long hard look through the eyes of a newcomer at what you are doing: What is going right? What is going wrong? What are they going to axe? Or keep?

Are you…
Still showing those old collections or products mostly because you worked so hard on them? (Clean house.)
Still devoting time to a client who hasn’t paid you any decent royalties since 2011? (Back burner.)
Still submitting to the cattle calls of big manufacturers without any results? (Let someone else do it.)
Still adding “me too” designs based on what you see in the stores? (You’re too late.)
Still holding back that new work because it is not quite perfect? (Get it out there.)

Imagine explaining to this new person WHY you do what you do (note that was not “what” you do). If the explanation starts with “Because I…” instead of “Because they…” maybe it’s time to evaluate whether your focus is on your customers. Every business needs a well defined and clear mission that can not only be understood but also explained or you will eventually lose your way. We all tend to muddle that up after a time and need to go back and look for the clarity. It may not be exactly the same as when you started - markets, strategies and even your goals may change - but you need to find it.

Try it - sit down with a pen and paper and fire yourself!