Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Thrill Is Gone



First, my best wishes to BB King’s family. When I wrote this he was battling serious health problems, and now he’s gone off to the Big Jam. But can’t you hear him singing it?

Remember how thrilling the whole idea of a digital revolution and social media used to be? One big party where everybody shared fresh ideas, important life moments and the added bonus of marketing your work for free. What could be better?

Well…once again, things ain’t what they use’ta be. The digital revolution is over and digital won. Time to forget the revolution moniker, it’s just how life is. A whole generation now in the workforce has not known it any other way. A constant barrage of pitches (and new pitchmen), messages, ads, IM’s, pokes, posts… to the point where everything gets tuned out. 
Google doesn’t just want to provide information anymore they want to own it all, and then sell your personal info to top bidder while sucking billions from advertisers just because they can. (Ads that they now know are ineffective, by the way…) 
Facebook has become akin to an extortion racket: if you have a popular business site you are no longer allowed to reach your thousands of followers unless you pay to promote posts. 
Linked In has deteriorated into phony profiles posting promos and misguided people who repost anything and everything hoping to get some exposure; meaningful discussions have all but disappeared. 
Cable companies have moved from offering a fresh new viewing alternative, to doing their best to give people no alternative except to pay grossly inflated prices. 
Apple has moved past innovation and amazing design into pushing for profits, profits, profits (we miss you Steve).
Verizon buried the desire to be the best under the desire to make the most, and publicly state they don’t need customers who complain about high prices. 
The list goes on. The big digital companies are so big, so pervasive in our plugged-in lives that you don’t hear about all the other little start-ups who hope to take back a little market share—unless you go looking for them. DuckDuck for search, or Ello for social, or a hundred others who still have that revolutionary spirit.

And then there is art licensing.

Just as creatives need to look at licensing as one leg of a many-legged platform for making a living, social media is just one leg in a many-legged platform to introduce your work to a vast world. What was a golden river of access and opportunity has turned into a tsunami of content, and being discovered while bobbing around in the raging water is difficult. And here’s a shocker for you – visibility on social media has little or nothing to do with success in art licensing. Most of the people whose names are on those products in the stores are seldom seen on art licensing forums, actually most are never seen there at all. (The flip side is also true – the most visible are not the most successful).

Likes are vanity, sales are reality.

It has long been said that ideas are worthless but execution is priceless. You need to act on your inspiration, put it into a usable form and then find a way to bring it to market. Or as is often the case now, find multiple ways to bring it to market. “I made this picture, I posted it and now I want a licensing career” doesn’t cut it, never did. Even if you did pay for a Make Art That Looks Like Everybody Else’s class. Bringing something to market is hard work, starting with testing your concept in the real world, then finding a market fit, identifying the players in that market and then getting in front of them. And that’s just the first round. Then you review the feedback, redo what isn’t working and repeat all the steps above. All while working on improving your skills. And the beautiful part is—that’s what still works. It actually helps you stand out from the crowd. 

So this is what remains after the thrill is gone. The hard part. The bump that bounces so many people off the licensing path: test it first. What all those really successful people are busy doing, over and over again. Get offline and head outside. Some of the biggest names in the business are still doing art fairs, and we often run into them at various retail shows. They are out talking with their customers, trying out new designs, doubling down on the best sellers and shelving the rest. They have Etsy followers and Zazzle sites that feed them info. Create it, test it, send it out, rinse and repeat. It may not have immediate gratification like posting a pic on Facebook and reading the accolades that follow (which is NOT qualified critique BTW), but I can assure you if you do the hard work and then manage to get that product into the market – the thrill is definitely not gone.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Break It Down



So, you want to license your chicken designs, or woodland creatures, a particular unique pattern or maybe your poem or clever saying. Good! But before you head off down the yellow brick road, portfolio in hand, recognize that what may seem like a single assumption on your part – that you can license your (whatever) for (whatever) – is actually an entire set of related hypothesis. Such as:

1. The art/design is good enough. Licensed art has to be “good enough” on any number of levels. It is a given that the artist needs to be skilled. But wait, there’s more! Is the concept fresh, is the subject matter acceptable to the consumer, is the design composition handled well, are the colors and the technique reproducible on products, and so on. When a client evaluates art for licensed product there are many factors that come into play, and any one of them may torpedo a deal. Also note the opposite of good enough isn’t necessarily “bad”, many times it just means not usable.

2. There is more value derived from using my art than that of my competitor. If this is not true, then why would they use your art? There will be a number of factors that contribute to its “value” for the licensee: the style is currently popular, the art is already finished, the designer is easy to work with, they have a history with you or they just like you or your agent more than the next in line (seriously), they believe you are capable of creatively expanding a line when the other person is not… the list goes on. Note that some of these may be only perceptions of the licensee, as opposed to reality, however they carry full weight.  

3. There is a need for the category of product. Maybe you could design the best ever figurines, calendars, posters, TV lamps, lunchboxes, CD cases, picture frames, clocks or checks. But why would you? Your client is making a product to sell into a fickle and changing marketplace, so strive to be in categories that are healthy, not declining.

4. You can find the right licensee. First you have to determine what market channel this product will sell into, and then you have to identify what licensees sell similar products into that same channel. Then get it in front of the right person at that company. Easy? Not always, but you need to do that work.

5. People will have the required “Me Too” reaction. Every product has to connect with the end user on some level or it won’t sell. Period. They have to need it, or want it, or want to give it, or want to say it. More often than not your art will be the face of the product, so people must connect with your art and/or your message. Hopefully you have already proven they will – art fairs, Etsy, other licenses, your own line of products – there are many ways to validate your “concept” that will give you a leg up with a client. If nothing else you will quickly learn what does and doesn’t work.     

This is by no means a complete list, and if it seems complex, well, that’s the point. It can be. No decision is made in a vacuum, and while you cannot address all the different factors it helps to first recognize that they exist, and then start thinking about how they will influence whether you get that license or not. Work on talking to yourself in complete sentences:

“People like my poems” is nice. “People like my poems on greeting cards because that helps them say things they otherwise cannot say, and I have 24 of them arranged as a collection” is so much better.

“I want to license my woodland critters” is nice. “I want to license my woodland critters as a repeating toss pattern on fabric for quilting, and I have 3 distinctly different versions prepared” gets you much further along. 

The good news is, the more you practice looking at the components of the big picture, the easier it becomes to see it.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Dude, Like, How About My Stuff?



As someone who has been in the sales business for many years, I was horrified to receive the following email solicitation recently (from a company we all know and many work with):

Hello my name is Xxxxxx. I'm with xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx. I'm here to see if you were ready to place an order with us for this season. I noticed you have been purchashing the coasters, the every day greeting ccards and the seasonal cards. Please check out our website to see if there is anything else in there that might catch your eyes.
www.(abcdefgh).com Also be sure to check out the SALES we have going on for this month. Don't miss out on some great items. IF you have your order ready please call us at 800-999-9999 or try our fax at 800-999-9999
I know you just placed an order with us a few months back and I thank you for that. I just don't want you to miss out on our monthly sales.

Thanks, hope you have a great rest of the week!!!

Xxxxxx Xxxxxxx
Senior Exectutive Manager
Xxxxxx Xxxxxx
Phone 800-999-9999
Fax 800-999-9999

Seriously? I have left the misspellings, missing punctuation, odd spacing and more intact – this is, other than the deleted info, exactly how it was sent. Yes, we have a tax number, yes we could function as a retailer, NO we don’t sell those products and NO we have never purchased anything from this company.

We license TO them.

A few tips on writing your cover letter/intro email to someone, such as an art director or agent, in our industry:

1. While art licensing may be appear to be a bit more casual than typical ivory tower business, it is still a business solicitation and you need to be professional, both in tone and construction. Look up how a business letter is crafted and do it correctly. Especially important if you are cold mailing.

2. Do your research, do your research, do your research. It’s that important. You lose all credibility when you misspell a name, assume they make items they don’t, or send them art that is not related to their product categories and/or art styles.

3. Be brief and to the point. Do NOT try to “sell” in the cover letter. Identify yourself, note that you are an artist asking for consideration, include maybe one or two sentences about you and your style and then sign off; that’s about it. (Make sure your contact information is included). We often get long, rambling intros included with submissions, and trust me on this – they don’t help your case. Quite the opposite.

4. The best approach is to send a link to designs that can be viewed online. In that case it can also be advantageous to send ONE small jpg as an attachment, however if you do send one make it your best shot, think of it as a teaser. If you don’t have an online gallery, send ONLY A FEW appropriately sized, carefully selected lo-res jpgs that show your style and expertise. Do not send a giant PDF or a big portfolio unless you are invited to do so. Be sure to have your name and phone or email on every image, they can easily get separated from your message.

5. Follow up in a couple weeks to see if they received it, not to get an answer. If they like it and want to see more they will be contacting you. If they haven’t had time to review, or don’t see a fit, you may, or may not, hear back from them. When submitting, just remember they are under no obligation to acknowledge receipt or give you an answer – some will and some will not, and there’s no telling which it will be. It’s business, not personal, so don’t take it the wrong way.

Good luck!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snippets Atlanta 2015



Well, we made it past the normal incubation period so apparently managed to get through another Atlanta without catching colds or flu. This year had us worried with all the hoopla about the expanding pandemic and the ineffective vaccine. Gettin’ soft, I guess. Or just gettin’ old… nah, couldn’t be that.

It was a good show, not a record setter but now that we have sent out a bunch of stuff to a bunch of people we are maintaining our optimism. It seems a lot of the licensees are still reacting to the kick in the teeth of the last few years and are concentrating on stabilizing their business while they adapt to a changed market. Inventory control, cash management and staff reductions are still at the forefront for many, and necessarily so. The focus will have to turn back to growth at some point, and that will be good for licensors because the only enduring way to grow a category is through new product and new customers, which directly translates into more opportunity for fresh ideas and good design. Of course not everybody will get there at the same time, and then there’s always the retailer wildcard (since that’s ultimately where all of the decisions come from) but I think it’s what companies will look to next in the progression. Grow or die, you know.

So: Snippets. Lot’s of them. Last January’s unbridled optimism seems to have given way to guarded optimism, as in “things are going well but we’re not out of the woods”. Some people are happy, some not, but it seems like most everybody is still in the game. And really, what more could you ask for?       

  
“People are more practical and less indulgent now and that has definitely affected our market.”  – a sales manager

“Artists need to realize that not every saying works as a wall plaque. They need an audience.” –an agent

“Nobody should ever get into the apparel business because of the huge inventory required.” – somebody in the apparel business

“This is so funny but I don’t know what to do with it.” – an art director

“You can’t make anything for children under three anymore, the entire category has basically been eliminated by safety concerns.” -CEO of a gift company

“That’s often how it works – they tell you it’s great and are thinking about developing a program. Then they disappear and stop answering emails, and it’s generally because some new shiny object has popped up in front of them.” – an agent

“We like it but don’t think it can work. Anytime you have to explain a product past a half-dozen words it becomes difficult to market.”   
- gift company manager

“We are not putting anything new into production yet, we would need more positive market information to justify the inventory risk.” – a gift company division manager

“Sometimes we reject portfolios because we can’t see who the person is – the art may be cute but there’s no story to follow.” – an agent

“It’s a very clever idea, would be a pure impulse buy. This is a soar or crash item, I only wish we knew which one it will be.” – a licensee in a product meeting

Ronnie: “So I noticed you don’t have any women’s lines. Is that by design?”
Manufacturer: “No, it’s probably because all our lines are picked by three men.”

“Every little variation or new product in the market is not necessarily a trend.” – an agent

“It’s an old look but not old enough to be retro – so it’s just old.” –comment in a hallway about a new product line

“It’s funny but year after year the big lines are still the big lines.” 
–an agent

“She’s going to find out very quickly that just because you send some art out, that doesn’t mean they will pay any attention to it. There’s a lot more to it than that.” – an agent who just lost an artist

“Tell them I already have their stuff.” – a licensee blowing off a meeting with us

“Management hates these, but women are lining up and taking them off the displays as we set them, so I guess they’re wrong.” 
– rep overheard in a showroom

‘If you have something good send it anytime. We don’t do call-outs anymore, we just got too much junk.” - a licensee

“So here’s the problem: we have good buyer data from our own DTC (direct to consumer) website, but if the reps don’t agree with us, or don’t like it, it’s still not going to sell.” – owner of a gift company

“We meet with a lot of different artists, and unfortunately not a lot of those artists think it through to the product.” – creative director at a major gift company

“When words are the main feature I think people get tired of reading them. Patterns work better for us.” – in a meeting

“It's not so much the molds and resin as it is the detailed painting because labor costs have gone up so much in China. We use a lot more printing now.” – gift company owner

“I’m climbing this ladder to get there, but I’m not sure where “there” is anymore.” – a widely licensed artist

“The problem with introducing textiles is they have to sell well right out of the chute because the MOQ’s (minimum order quantity) are so high. Management wants items to be selling well in six months, and to sell through in less than 12, so taking 15 to 18 months to build a program is no longer an option.” – a sales manager at a gift company

“I like the sayings but the art is not where we will need it to be.” – an art director saying no

 “Unfortunately they needed to draw a line somewhere, and they did it by sales numbers so it becomes arbitrary what skus stay and what skus are dropped.” – a company mgr explaining line cuts

“Garden flags are a dying business.” – from a gift company
“Our flag biz is up 39% over last year.” – from a flag company

“Product needs to be fun. If it’s fun they will buy it.” – gift company owner

“They’re all looking for something that looks like something else successful.” – an artist

“It  has been good, and that’s kind of a relief. I think we’ve got it this show.” – president of a gift company

“I look for products that I can sell for 19.99 or less, but they need to look like they cost a lot more than that.” – a small retail shop owner

“As a creative in this business I have to be working all the time, and artists who don’t get that are done for.” – a successful licensed artist

“It takes a lot of energy to bring a product line onto the market. You need to create a wave that picks up not only your own people but the reps and retailers as well. If you can do that – and then it actually sells too – well, then you’ve got something.” 
– gift company owner

And then my favorite:

“No owls. We’re done with owls.” – in a meeting
"Any new owls? Owls always sell well if they're cute." - in the next meeting