Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

I want to wish all of you a wonderful Holiday, and hope you are able to cut through the clutter and take some time to enjoy what is truly important this time of year. Yes, it can a little more difficult to appreciate the season when you work on designing for it all 12 months, but we still enjoy all the festivities that come with “Real Christmas” as we call it. Both Ronnie and my families are spread about all points of the compass (Minnesota, Florida, Washington, North Carolina, Oregon, California) so we are not able to assemble them very often but they are always in our thoughts at Christmas - I hope you get to feel the warmth and joy of the season however you celebrate it and we offer you our Best Wishes for the coming year.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Which direction are you looking?

Warren Buffet talks about how investors, particularly fund managers, make their decisions on how to go forward while looking in the rear view mirror to see how things were. It’s the same kind of thinking that we are all guilty of - in so many areas of our lives – but it is definitely a hindrance in the world of art and licensing where much has changed over the last few years (or months…).

Say you wanted to illustrate children’s books – typically you would develop a portfolio or possibly a “dummy” book, get it in front of some literary agents and if you were lucky some editors, hopefully get hooked up with an author or publisher and be on your way. Not so much anymore – in this time of transition you have content streaming into the market through self publishing, blogs, videos, portfolio websites and even spam mail. While the future of paper books is in limbo the digital applications are multiplying every day – along with the questions about how are they distributed, paid for, copy protected and more. Are you looking forward to see how you can work in that world, or backward at the old practice?

Say you wanted a giftware collection for that cute set of characters you created, so you made up a few portfolio pages with mocked up figurines and maybe some other products, brought them to the (pick one) trade show where you hope to meet a manufacturer who would tell you what they will do with them. Not so much anymore – their question to you will likely be “What can/should we do with these?”, and they will want to know the story behind the collection, and how will this connect with their customers? Figurines and collectibles are a weak market now, so you will have to show them more functional products…were you looking forward and saw that coming, or will you be caught by surprise?

Say you bought yourself some coaching, a set of product templates, organized all your designs in the portfolio just like they said you should, and then noticed that your portfolio looks pretty much the same as the hundreds and hundreds of portfolios in the show, and no one is really paying much attention. But hey - those booths with an innovative new twist on product, unique designs, and perhaps an engaging story to tell are busy all day long...can you see what happened? Can you see why doing what everyone has always done may not work anymore?

We are in a business that changes constantly – trends, colors, type of product, clients, retailers – some are constant and some are shifting sand. The result is that we are always playing “catch-up” in art licensing, which is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you realize that IS the name of the game, adjust your attitude accordingly and keep looking down the road for what’s next.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tap Dancing for Retail

Everybody wants to land that big product line with multiple SKUs, but it becomes increasingly difficult as the decision making process for licensees grows to be ever more complex and drawn out. We find ourselves in discussions with our licensees about things like NOS, MOQ, QPB, EDD, and so on long before the decision has been made to go ahead with a product line - but then that’s the way of the world nowadays.
I know…say what?

This is part of the new language that retail-based decision making is forcing art licensors to learn, or at the very least to understand. Manufacturers are leaning toward piecing together collections slowly rather than making a big splash with large SKU count introductions. They will start with one or two categories – maybe a dozen ornaments and/or a handful of plaques – and will wait to see how that goes before expanding the line to include more products. Caution is the word of the day, and retailers are not buying into multiple categories until they know a property has traction in the market, so we are left with a kind of Catch-22 situation where nobody wants to be left holding the bag, or in this case the pallet of excess stock.

A short primer of a few terms that can make or break your deal:

SKU – stock keeping unit
MOQ – minimum order quantity
QPB – quantity price breaks
NOS – number of stores
UC / UP – unit cost / unit price
EDD – expected delivery date
QA / QC – quality assurance / quality control
FOB – free on board or freight on board (shipping)
JIT – just in time (delivery)
PDS – product delivery schedule (sometimes product design spec)

Why do you care? Let’s say your licensee misses the first JIT date, so NOS reduces 50%. Now they haven't sold their MOQ, they lose some QPB and the UC goes through the roof – but they can’t raise the UP and the retailer is holding them to the EDD on the PDS. QC goes out the window and now 10% of them are NFG (you figure that one out…) so the retailer clearances them out immediately and then - OMG happened to your brand? 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Waited too long - the followup

Saturday 11 AM – the wet snow brings down the pines across the power lines.

Saturday 8 PM – we finally get the generator set up to operate and can run a cord for lights, frig and radio, but no heat. It’s cold.

Sunday 11AM – got the fancy twist lock plug we needed, the genny is now hard wired into the electric panel and the boiler is running – heat, lights and TV, just like downtown!

Monday 3 PM – the generator blows out. Runs like a top but no longer produces power, a quick disassembly shows nothing obvious, so no more heat, frig, lights or TV… thinking about moving downtown.

Monday 3:30 PM – broken toe results from repeatedly kicking generator. (just kidding). Joking about “how much we enjoy the changing seasons” is no longer funny.

 Monday 8 PM – after the third stop, finally located some lamp oil without citronella - apparently an endangered product and now worth more per ounce than gold.

Tuesday 5:05 AM – power is restored just before the temp in the house dips into the 40’s, and two hours later we can finally emerge from under a six inch thick stack of blankets.

Friday AM – will likely get a speeding ticket flying down I94 to Florida….

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Waited too long...

We woke up this morning to a winter wonderland – it really was pretty.

Dogs don’t wait for weather, however,

 so we slogged up the drive through the several inches of wet, heavy snow and marveled at how quiet and beautiful it was.

Then we began to hear the crackling of branches in the woods all around us as that very pretty morning snow started taking them down – wet heavy precipitation is not a friend of towering pines…

Of course not one but TWO came down across the power lines, one is a bit burned and we are currently living off the grid – but not by choice….us and 50,000 other people in the Twin Cities area…

The fire pit out back – won’t be sitting around that anytime soon....

Is this not the saddest FL license plate you have ever seen?

Today - we'll settle for electricity.
Next week – we're runnin' to the sunshine!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


We’re very sad here today as we just lost a dear friend to breast cancer. Alyn Shannon was one of the bright lights, the incredibly talented creative force behind Paper Prince, ColorOriginals, XOXO and all of the card and paper lines that were part of Diversified Graphics. Alyn was so much more than a client – she and her husband Jeff were our neighbors, our walking, dinner and cruising partners, and a shining example of what living a selfless life really means.

Alyn was a woman of deep faith, and after selling their business they took on the cause of Haiti, traveling to the country many times, and forming the charities and Healing Haiti to bring some real help to the impoverished people of that country. They are directly responsible for pushing forward projects to provide some of the most basic needs - clean water, meals, decent living conditions and education for these long suffering people. Even in the last months of her life she walked the walk, traveling to Haiti when she was well enough to do so, and working side by side with the people there to distribute water, food, pencils and paper or whatever they could manage to bring in with them.

I think we can best honor her time with us by helping with that which she held so dear – please visit their website at, learn about their mission and help if you can. It’s the least we can do to remember someone who did so much.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Update That Resume

I was listening to a radio program this morning about the complexity of the employment market and how that continues to evolve during this depressed economy, and also how it is further complicated by the ongoing shift toward a service economy here in the US. Employers have been ratcheting up the requirements for jobseekers because, with a surplus of applicants for every position, they can ask for the moon and maybe get it. There is even a name for it now – “Super Candidate Syndrome”. The problem is that as they continue to pile proficiency and experience requirements onto a single job description they eventually reach critical mass – the point where no human could do the job as described. (And if there was such a candidate, what’s the chance they are unemployed?).

What I found interesting – particularly from an art licensing standpoint - is what skills and attributes they (and also savvy employers) think will be necessary for success in the future – many are quite the opposite of the old standards. Foremost is a “proven adaptability”, meaning the ability to adapt to and respond quickly to changes, both inside the company and outside in the marketplace. Others are: “hybrid skills”, meaning a combination of skills derived from a variety of sources and experiences; the ability to transcend multiple viewpoints; self motivation and self discipline so you can work without direct supervision; the ability to plan and maintain a “long term horizon” type of focus. And most surprising – multiple careers can now be a good thing on your resume because that will teach you much of the above.

Sound familiar? Could be a job description for an art licensing position, if there ever was such a thing. Think about the licensees or agencies as your employer, and your portfolio and presentations as your resume. They too are looking for “super candidates” in this market – thousands of artists from Indianapolis to India or Boston to Bejing can draw another snowman or jack-o-lantern, so what is going to make yours connect?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Get to work!

Every year about this time we always look at each other and ask “Where did all the business go?” - and then remember that about now it always slows down. The flood eases somewhat, most of the fires are out and we can take a breath, look around the office and wonder what actually ended up at the bottom of those piles on our desks.

In other words – time to buckle down and get to work on next year.

It took us a few years to understand the rhythm of our market. January through July is busy with the various shows and our clients’ sourcing schedules. The late summer months are all about follow up, contracts, art changes and last minute projects. As we head into fall, many of our clients are busy putting their new releases to bed, traveling to overseas factories and finishing up final production details so their new product lines are ready for the January introductions. Since as designers much of our work is done at the front end, we can now turn to some of our own “big picture” work – assessing what we learned this year, what we have versus what we need to have, and what has to be done so we can be ready for that second week of January…when it all starts again.

For an artist, the trick is to use this time wisely. It’s an opportunity to fill in the holes in your portfolio, finish that collection or start a new one (perhaps several?), maybe do some research. Get in the habit of scheduling some studio time to synch with the ebb and flow of the market and you will have a much easier time keeping up once it’s off and running.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New article and product

The question often comes up about what agents look for in an artist (even in our own offices…), I have a new article published on the subject on Kate Harper’s Greeting Card Designer blog – you can read it here. 

Also, Ronnie has some great new My Friend Ronnie product now out at Macy's, you can see a bit more about it on her My Friend Ronnie blog here. 
Let me know what you think.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I read an interesting article published in the NY Times about the declining market for children’s books. (You can read it here). One would expect that the troubled economy has had an effect on the demand, which it has, and my guess would have been the technology shift as the other big culprit – however they call out a third factor that I hadn’t really considered.

We have always alternated between being amused and horrified by that driving need so many parents feel to make sure their children are going to be above average and hugely successful, but I had not made the connection between that and the decline of picture books. Seems that they are being perceived as too simple and not challenging enough for little Ivy League bound offspring – you know, let’s get them going on War and Peace as soon as they can manage to hang on to it. Assuming of course there is time between ballet, lacrosse, music lessons, French, creative writing and math camp. Man it’s tough being a 4 year old nowadays.

I just hope that in 20 years the article will not be about the lack of creativity shown by 24 year old Harvard graduates…

Monday, October 4, 2010

You'll have to call me....

We had dinner last night with some good friends who also happen to be in the industry, and eventually talk turned to how people (artists in particular) are using blogs and social media in their careers. After a few war stories and the trading back and forth of a few favorite blogs to follow – nothing was really decided about the best way for an artist to make use of the various tools now available.

I was, however, happy to find at least one kindred soul in the group who, like me, does not feel the need to live their life in public on Facebook….

It did remind me of some rather shocking statistics that I read in some recent marketing book about the daily bombardment of media in today’s world:
Every day the average person is subjected to over 200 TV commercials, several to several hundred print ads, non-stop advertising on the street, bus, radio, highway and even in public bathrooms, several to one hundred or more emails, and then all the added noise from Twitter, Facebook, blogfeeds, texts, phones and internet advertising….
The result is what they call the “wallpaper effect” where most of it gets tuned out by the brain as a survival mechanism.

I think this is the potential trap of social media, particularly for those who think they are using it for their business but are doing so without any sort of filter on what they say or how often they say it. We monitor a couple of Twitter feeds just to be (regularly!) amazed by what and who they will tweet about – and we know some of their customers are reading them too. I am far from a digital Luddite but I don’t believe that it is necessary to know every detail and movement of every person I come in contact with, nor do I feel the need to tell them the same about me.

I guess I am just not interested in being part of the wallpaper.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

So Where Did It Go?

You slaved over the Call for Design submission, did everything according to the guidelines and after you sent it in…nothing. You check back in a few weeks and still…nothing. Two months later you check again and are told your designs were not selected, and no, they don’t have any further feedback for you. It is an enormously frustrating but common occurrence in this business as we shift more and more towards a “spec” type of work model. Spend a little time on any of the illustration and graphic design forums and in very short order you will see this subject pop up. Spec work has always been the bane of the traditional designer’s work model – everybody hates it, many refuse to do it, some get angry just talking about it.

If you want to be in the art licensing business, better get used to it.

The trick here is to understand why so much of art licensing is done this way. First, let’s acknowledge that not every company operates under this model, but a pretty fair number do, and a majority of the mass market suppliers will use this method for sourcing. The reason is that, particularly in mass, the retailers are now calling the shots at the manufacturing level. In reality they always have, but not quite so directly – many projects won’t go forward anymore without an actual order from a retailer in hand. The suppliers get these orders by presenting the designs they have collected to the retailers for review, often in a sort of “cattle call” of their own where they compete with other suppliers for the same order. (During these calls we have to monitor who was sent what to avoid having our artwork presented to the same retailer by more than one client – a potentially ugly situation that can easily cost you a customer.) The designs that are presented go through a variety of reviews, sometimes even focus groups, and then weeks or months later the retailer makes their selection.

The second trick is to recognize that this is partly a numbers game. The more times you submit to these calls the more likely the odds are that you will get something (making the assumption of course that your designs are well executed and appropriate subjects). We have artists that hit most every call for design, and some that rarely submit – and I’m sure you can guess who gets the work. Also, the larger your portfolio the easier it is to tailor a submission for the particular request, so again – that numbers game.

The consolation prize is that every new submission design can become a new portfolio piece – maybe not the desired result but definitely another step toward success.

At least that’s what we’ve been telling our artists….

Friday, September 17, 2010

Off to The Licensing Races

Readers of this blog know that I talk a lot about how online technology has, and continues to, change the art licensing industry. There is an interesting confluence of defining factors right now, and I try not to spend an inordinate amount of time pondering this but it does bear closer inspection.

1. The entry gate has been propped open by the net. Anyone with a computer can attempt to market their art (regardless of whether it is appropriate for licensing) to potential licensees without the traditional filters such as high overhead and/or agent representation.

2. A cottage industry selling how-to information about art licensing has popped up and is driving more competition into the field, but again w/o any filters. Some of the art is good, some very good, but unfortunately most is similar to what happens when you hand a ten year old a set of tools and ask him to fix your car – its just not going to work.

3. At the same time, the economy has tanked and the market of available outlets for all these new art licensors has contracted – the number of licensees, the amount of product produced and the time products are on market are all under pressure.

4. The “improvement cycle” has reached the speed of light (or let’s say fiber optic) as access to all this new art is instantaneous and worldwide. Chris Anderson of TED talks about how this works with video, but it applies equally to our business. New ideas, techniques, colorways, perspectives etc. are all immediately disseminated to artists everywhere and instantly improved upon – meaning that you need to continually be really good AND really creative to stay in front of the competition for more than a few minutes. It’s called “crowd accelerated innovation” and it is rocking our world.

So, when you throw all these together into the stew, what do we have? What is your reaction? A colleague of ours thinks Time magazine should run the cover story “Is Art Licensing Dead?” but I maintain that may be a bit extreme. Art licensing is still very alive and running fast, but the trick will be figuring out what direction.

Perhaps Yogi Berra said it best: “The future ain’t what it used to be”.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What a Great Idea!

How often do you find yourself looking at a new product or design and wondering "how did they ever think of that? And how clever!" We do it all the time because – this is important - we are in the idea business. Fresh and new designs, products, colors, adaptations… pick one or all… these are what make our world of art licensing go ‘round.

There is an old saying in show biz, “It takes decades to become an overnight success”. Of course you don’t need to be an entertainer to understand that as it applies to pretty much everything we do. Another one of my favorites along those same lines: “Inspiration is freely granted to those who work hard”. It’s a rare case where a hot new product is the result of the first idea that just popped into someone’s head, instead they have gone through any number of transformations and redesigns, finally evolving into what we see as brand new on the market.

I was reading an interview with Leif Enger, the Minnesota born author of Peace Like a River, and others, and he was talking about the process of creating ideas. He says, “In the early stages all ideas look good and only through the daily work are the bad ones revealed…you have to plunge ahead with the faith that (the good idea) will emerge. If it doesn’t, you excise the problem (and start over).”

A couple other creative jots from the last couple weeks, the first from Don Draper in Mad Men:
“The best idea wins, and you’ll know it when you see it. It’s about banging your head against the wall until you get to it.”

And from an interview with Steve Smith, one of the creators (and Red himself) of The Red Green Show:
“The core message of the Red Green Show was that it will work, just keep trying. And if it doesn’t, well, quit doing it and do something else.”

These are several different ways of saying pretty much the same thing – that the best technique for generating more ideas is to actually work on the ones you have. This is also when you will realize if they are going anywhere, and if you are not sure, if you don’t feel the excitement coming through, then set it aside and start anew. The old stereotype of the writer surrounded by crumpled up pieces of paper (now they would be .docs…) comes from a place of truth. The recycling bins of all successful artists are overflowing with tried and discarded sketches, it’s really the only way to get there.

As the bulletin board says above Ronnie’s desk, “Dare to Suck”.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Agent Myth

I wish I could count how many times I have seen the comment on various art licensing groups that someone is “still searching for an agent”, or questions like “I have submitted to several agencies, how do I get an agent to sign me?” The belief seems to be that if you are willing to work hard, have a properly presented portfolio with the right combination of product mock-ups and can get signed with an agent then success is not far behind.


There is no question that an experienced agent with a working knowledge of the art licensing market can accomplish many things that most artists will have difficulty accomplishing on their own.
(Let me repeat a few very important words for those that are still looking: experienced, working knowledge, and ART licensing market.)
The stock and trade of a good agent is manifold - names, contacts and often personal relationships with licensees in a wide variety of categories; an understanding of current (and past) trends, colors and how those affect various clients; what clients work in which categories, what is their market share and what direction are they going; a broad “nuts and bolts” understanding of marketing and promotion, contracts, royalties, product design and manufacturing requirements; these are a few, the list goes on. But even given all of this, there is still no assurance that they can get you licensed. That is the myth part. As one agent puts it, “I can guarantee that I will get your art in front of the decision makers, but I cannot guarantee they will buy it.”

The following is from last year’s “Art of Reality” article:
“Licensing agents make their living by representing art that can be sold (licensed) and they will usually snap up anyone they think has significant potential. You may not be a fit for a particular agency for any number of reasons, but if you have shown your work to several agents and they all have passed, it is likely time for a reality check.”

This has not changed. Generally we agents have neither the time nor inclination to train an artist from scratch, but I am here to tell you that if the work is extraordinary, we will make the investment. If your work is just ordinary, or ill suited for product licensing, we will not – some things just can’t be fixed, and no agent can help you become a success if your work is not of licensable quality or style.

This does not necessarily mean that you need to toss your dream and head for employment at Starbucks, but face the fact that if experienced art licensing professionals keep turning you down you are probably not ready to enter the art licensing business. I know one very successful artist who, the first time she showed her art to a manufacturer was told (in a nice supportive way) to get some more training and come back sometime in the future with about one hundred additional designs. She did both, has now has been licensing for years and is responsible for designing well over a thousand licensed products thus far in her career.
Fall down seven times, get up eight is a great philosophy as long as you aren’t tripping over the same root. If it’s not working get some feedback, fix it if you can, and then go back out and see what happens.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Work on You

There is a short article on titled “The Six Traits of a Successful Business Owner”; you can find it here. If you read my posts you already know that I keep harping about how you need to understand that art licensing is a business, and in order to succeed at it I believe you need to not only hone your art skills, but also your business skills, your attitude and perhaps some personality characteristics as well.

Hone your personality characteristics? What kind of nonsense is that? No, I don’t mean you need to turn into Donald Trump (hey, ever see my combover?) but it is time well spent to learn about and recognize what characteristics can help a person be successful, and then work on bringing those to the surface when you need them. There has been a lot of research done on what makes some businesses (and people) successful while others fail, and when you read up on it you will soon notice that many of the same basic traits keep coming through again and again regardless of the type of business.

Three of my favorites from the article and how they can relate to art licensing:

1. The ability to collaborate. This is absolutely Essential with a capitol E. Art licensing is not a take it or leave it type of business – on most occasions you will be working hand in hand with your clients to make your designs fit their needs.

2. Curiosity. You must be curious – about your market, about your clients, about what is the next big thing, about every aspect of art licensing. Not that you need to be an expert at all things, or trying to chase trends, but you need to know how it all fits together.

3. Action oriented. From the article: “Successful founders are proactive and always differentiating themselves from their competitors”. Couldn’t say it better – every day the art licensing business becomes more crowded with hopeful artists and you need to find your key to standing out. What makes you different? How will you be unique?

Continued success in any business endeavor requires a process of honest evaluation, and then adjustment, for everything you are bringing to the market – including you!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Opportunity knocks

We spent our Saturday over at the Minneapolis Gift Market and came away somewhat energized, as we always do after these kind of events, as well as a little bit troubled – kind of a weird combination, but then - times are weird. The tri-annual Mpls show is pretty small and easily covered in a day: a couple hundred showrooms that are mostly rep groups with multiple lines, and a couple dozen temps - nothing like Atlanta, New York, Dallas or other major gift markets. But then those places won’t have several showrooms devoted to (my) Scandinavian heritage items either…uff-da….

It is always energizing to get out and scrutinize finished product on the shelves, see who is doing what and how they are doing it, what is good and what is just plain bad. I would venture to say that there is no better connection to the art licensing business than a gift show – better than social media groups, coaches or seminars, better than walking Surtex or Licensing. All of those have something to offer but pale in comparison to what you can learn in the “trenches” of the industry. After all, this is what it’s really about - the business of getting those products out of the factories and onto the retailer’s shelf.

And then the little bit troubling part. Normally in any gift show we usually see a fair number of new products that have us mumbling "wish I had thought of that", but not so much last weekend. (Actually, not so much last Atlanta show either.) We were able to stand outside many of the showrooms, look in at the displays and see that we didn’t need to bother with closer inspection as it was the "same old stuff." A disquieting number of showrooms were empty of buyers – and some were jammed – and we could make a direct correlation between the quality of the lines they represented and the number of buyers. Notice I said “quality”, not the number of lines represented or the amount of product displayed. Those selling well designed, nicely done product lines were busy writing business. Even so, as one (very busy) rep we talked with said, “They are only buying what they are sure they can sell.”

Yes, times may be a little weird, but I think the best way to view this is as an opportunity – the market is always seeking clever new ideas and fresh design, and apparently never more so than right now.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Let’s do the math

There is no question that manufacturers and importers have some very real and difficult challenges in this economy. The retailers continue to hammer their wholesale costs lower, while at the same time production suppliers and overseas factories are ratcheting up prices due to rapidly rising material and labor costs. Even shipping has gone through the roof. As the hard costs of manufacturing go up and selling prices go down they need to look wherever they can to recoup some of that loss, and soft costs - such as the royalties paid to product designers - become prime targets. Seems to be a bit of that going around lately.

Of course we really have no one to blame but ourselves. As a nation we have pushed the lowest price model forward until it has become the prime reason to buy – made in the USA, or locally produced, or retailer ethics, or quality, or any of those attributes that were once important to a buying decision now all take a backseat compared to low price. One needs to look no further than the exponential growth of the mass market discount stores for proof.

Here is the problem – let’s say you have a contract coming up for renewal that is paying you a 5 percent royalty. Your licensee is looking to cut costs, so they propose that they renew the contract at a lesser rate, say 3%. “Times are hard” you are told, “and this is only 2% less than what we were paying you. Our costs have gone up 10 to 15% - what’s the big deal?”

Um, not exactly a fair trade:

A 2% reduction on a 7% royalty is a 28% reduction in your pay.
A 2% reduction on a 5% royalty is a 40% reduction in your pay.
A measly 1% reduction on a five percent royalty is still a 20% reduction in your pay. If you worked in an office or warehouse and the boss came in and announced you were getting a 40% salary cut would you be sticking around?

We have seen all of these situations and worse. We once had a client ask to chop the royalties on an existing contract because, as he said, “You have made enough money on this product”. It was still selling well - he just wanted to cap our royalties. (No, it didn’t happen). We will be the first in line to help our clients stay competitive and work toward an equitable solution so we can all succeed, but that is the key – it needs to be equitable for everybody involved.

Of course every case is unique, but it is always a difficult decision to hold the line, and possibly end up walking away, because you believe that what you are providing is fresh, contemporary and valuable in today’s market (let’s hope it is…). Just make sure you know exactly what you are giving up before you agree to give it up.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What is it?

The local morning news did a little piece yesterday on the Christmas displays that are already going up in some stores in the UK – a tad early, perhaps? Better start buying, there are only 140 shopping days left…

It does bring to mind the subject of why people buy product, a subject that should be of interest to every licensed artist. We are not going to plumb the depths of psychological motivations that might cause someone to pick an item up off the shelf – we’ll leave that to the theorists – but look more at the question often asked in our studio – “Sure it’s cute, but what is it going to be?”

This is what you should be asking yourself about every piece of art you want to license. How is this art going to translate into a fresh, unique but still mainstream product that will actually cause someone (preferably a lot of someones) to part with their hard-earned cash? We often say in our office that a design needs a “reason for being”, meaning that it may be a cute…penguin, snowman, kitty, character, etc… but that is generally not enough to make it commercially viable.

The greeting card industry is a great one to study because they have it down pat. People buy cards for holidays and life events like birthday, baby, grad, get well, new job – the list is well defined. And they target who they are buying for – spouse, mom, uncle, co-worker, and so on. They also have mastered that important “connection” part of the equation – as the saying goes about cards, “the art stops them but the words sell them”. That same philosophy can be translated into whatever category you are going to target – put together a group of products with good enough design to stop them, and a meaningful message to connect with them, and they will be much more likely to be picked up off the shelf.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Where has all the flat art gone…long time passing….

(I hope you are old enough to remember “Blowin’ in The Wind”, and if not, well, skip the title and get back to geometry class.)

We have been hearing a lot lately about the ongoing erosion of the “flat art” projects. By flat art I mean that group of products that are not 3D, or shaped, molded, textured, woven or whatever – we’re talking mostly, but not exclusively, about paper here, items such as gift bags, wrap and tissue, paper tableware, napkins, gift boxes, and so on. (Greeting cards do remain an exception). We are hearing it from clients, other agents and even established artists who are not with Two Town – there seems to be a significant reduction in both the number and the size of these projects. What is happening here?

A few possibilities:

- Our clients tell us that they are just not producing what they used to - as one paper tableware mfr told us: “We used to do 7 or 8 collections a year, now its 2 or 3”. And when they do produce one, it is in much smaller quantities. Royalties on a paper collection at Target used to be worth several thousand dollars, now it may be only hundreds. Target, WalMart, the various Dollar stores, CVS, Walgreen’s, Party City, grocery and others are all competing to see who can buy the goods at the lowest price, and then are doing only one run and re-setting their aisles every 60 or 90 days. A few years back we had the best selling juvi BD bag in Target for over 2 years running – now it would be thrown out in a few months just on principal because that is the current retail model (ours was still on top when they dropped it…).

- Much of the art for these flat art projects, particularly gift bags and paper tableware, is now sourced through “cattle calls” – those “call for design” requests that are sent to untold dozens of artists and agencies, often complete with detailed art direction. I have seen more than one of these address books, and the odds of your design being chosen from the hundreds and hundreds of similar designs that will be submitted continue to be diluted as more artists get added to the lists. Some of the flag companies have jumped on this bandwagon as well.

- Retail outlets are disappearing. We had a client tell us last week in Atlanta that just a couple of years ago they had 3000 retail outlets, and they now have 1500. Many of the old school gift stores and smaller boutique stores are no more, in large part because of the bottom dollar pricing at the stores listed above. Some categories (scrapbooking, calendars, checks) have peaked and, while still selling, will continue to settle in at lower levels.

- The overseas manufacturers are slowly getting better at designing and supplying (royalty free) basic shelf goods direct to the retailers, effectively cutting out some of the stateside suppliers – and of course their designers.

So, the question is how do you adjust for this? What are your experiences?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It’s All About the Attitude

How is it that computers know to self destruct at the worst possible moment? Just as we are leaving for the Atlanta show the main office computer implodes and will not allow any of the CS3 programs to open. Not good. The backup drives are locked up in our house and inaccessible. Then our travel laptop loses half of its screen the day we get to Atlanta, so I have to set up a new laptop in the hotel room mostly by feel - very frustrating.

And then there is the Geek Squad….

Our office manager tried an online service call (where they take over the computer remotely) and after a few hours they decided they cannot fix the glitch this way and it has to go in; they will coordinate with the repair tech and give him a report of what they tried. When she brings the CPU in, the new Geek announces he doesn’t care what they tried, will NOT coordinate with them and they will get to it when they get to it. This is still the same organization, mind you. At this point they hook up to me in Atlanta to discuss the fact that they are going to charge for a full repair up front – even though they haven’t touched it yet – and then if they cannot fix it they will refund some of the money. And they want to be paid before they start. Hmmm…

All of that is bad, but the worst was the attitude I was getting from this twerp. I have been around computers since we had to program them in Basic and Fortran IV, and were ecstatic to get a 20MB hard drive and an 8088 processor. (Remember watching a spreadsheet change one field at a time?...ah, the good old days.) I may not be an official Geek but I do know enough to ask the right questions, however all I am getting is sighs and silence as answers. It was made very clear that they were in charge now and didn’t have any interest in my silly questions. Next we had 5 days of unreturned messages and no info until finally they decide they cannot fix it and need to wipe the hard drive, always the default position when they can’t figure it out. We took the computer away from them and did it in house.

I am boring you with this for two reasons – because unhappy customers love to share (yes, I would blow up my computer rather than take it back to the Geek Squad), and it so nicely illustrates how important attitude is to your success in business, and in particular the current licensing world.

We talk a lot with our clients and are always amazed to hear about artists who resist making changes, or don’t send requested designs, or even are willing to walk away from a project because it is taking too long to get an answer. A great quote from the Atlanta show from a client (about another artist): “She is more interested in doing what she likes than what we need”. Ouch. Or the follow-up call I had a couple days ago about a possible giftware line – it was all about whether the artist was easy to work with, would she come to their offices and brainstorm, and does she understand the process of producing a line – they already know she can draw, now they want to be sure they can work together.

It’s just like your mother told you – you only get one chance to make a first impression, so make sure it is a good one.

Monday, July 19, 2010

We just finished up 4 days in Atlanta at the gift market and are quite happy to have a ton of follow-up to do – it was a really good show. We went into this market with more appointments than ever before, 3.5 days of running from one end of the place (three buildings, 14 to 20 stories, each one FULL of showrooms…) to the other and loved (almost) every minute of it. It was a strange show in many ways, we heard from some clients that they were having a great show, some a so-so show and even one who unfortunately was having one of the worst ever. Traffic did ebb and flow quite a bit, although I thought it was kind of slow even for a July market and it was way down on Sunday.

What I am taking away from this show is that the clients we saw were almost all looking for that new…something. We need a new angel collection, we need a new wildlife artist, we need a tweener line, have you a good Halloween?…there was not much “fill-in” work being sought, they were looking to find new and fresh lines to bring to market. We had prepped our books for a gift show, heavy on collections and concepts, and that will definitely pay off. We also noticed that there was not a lot of new “wow” product – almost none actually, which of course may explain why they are all looking for fresh new lines. The scrapbookie/pattern mix/collage look (coupled with inspirational messages) was EVERYWHERE, much of it virtually identical, so I suspect you can look for that to go away as it becomes even more overdone.

All for now, my feet hurt and I think I hear a well deserved glass of red wine calling my name….

Monday, July 12, 2010

Don't Forget Your Feedback Loop

If you ever delve into systems analysis you will find wide variety in the definition and application of something called the “feedback loop”. The specifics can vary wildly depending on the type of system, however in every feedback loop, information about the effect of some action (the input data) is by some mechanism returned to the system, and in general that feedback can be defined by whether it is positive or negative; note the positive or negative definition is determined by the effect the information (the input) has on the system, not the data itself.

What can be fascinating is that in most systems inputting only positive feedback will destroy the system as quickly as only negative feedback - by upsetting the system balance and sending it out of control.

Writers have appropriated this concept as a development tool. If you have any interest in studying the art of writing (and you should if you want to be in the licensing business) you will soon run across references to a writer’s “feedback loop”. I suggest that artists should also co-opt it as a tool of their own, because obtaining direct feedback is key to improving what you do. And I’m not talking about your Grandma or fellow artists telling you how pretty something is. You want to seek out and embrace the negative feedback as well. In a system negative feedback leads to adaptive behavior and the seeking of equilibrium, and that prolongs the life of the system – correctly handled, it can do the same for your career.

It is all in how you look at it – consider all feedback an opportunity to polish your skills. If they like it, use that as inspiration and let it power your offering. If they don’t like it, put aside the emotional response (difficult as that is) and try to find out why so the next time you can do better. Either way try to get details about what did or did not work for someone. Get feedback from everybody you can, be shameless about seeking it and then be sure to LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN when you do find it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I love to write down snippets of conversation that seem particularly penetrating or insightful, a habit I picked up from a college roommate who would do it at parties and then read them back at the end of the night…not particularly discerning statements but always hysterical. Trade shows are generally fertile ground for new tidbits of wisdom, most of these are from the last couple of months:

When an artist doesn’t know what to do next they go back into the studio and paint the same thing again even though it has not been working.
- a licensing agent discussing how difficult it is to get fresh work

I tell ‘em “just paint more pictures”.
- another agent in the same discussion

But are they even looking at their art first?
- one of the first agents in the industry in a discussion about art coaches

It’s very cluttered out there.
- a manufacturing client discussing art submissions

I used to have several licensors making 3 figure royalties – now I have none.
- a manufacturing client who licenses a large number of artists

We spent our art budget buying art outright in Europe so we won’t be licensing much of anything this year.
- a client that always licensed a large number of designs every year

They won’t buy it because they haven’t heard of it.
- a brand marketing consultant while discussing a new collection

I don’t care what you’ve done – what are you going to do?
- a top agent in a discussion about finding new artists

Google is the ultimate equalizer.
- in an SEO seminar

Your brand is what your customers say it is, you do not get to define it.
- in a branding seminar

Wow, can this person draw.
-an agent describing what they want to say upon opening a portfolio

Have any comments or perhaps some of your own to add? Let’s hear them.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Yesterday’s CBS Sunday Morning program had a nice segment on Norman Rockwell, in particular the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas private collections that are now on exhibit at the Smithsonian, and how these two giants of film were so greatly influenced by his paintings. For those of us that grew up seeing his illustrations almost every day on the covers of Look and the Saturday Evening Post, in uncounted ads or on every new Brown and Bigelow calendar hung in our kitchen, Rockwell was a part of our life that we pretty much took for granted. Only now, after being in the “business” and watching the world of illustration change do I really understand what a treasure he was.

Even though he considered himself a commercial illustrator rather than an artist, he was an absolute perfectionist when it came to his work. It is fascinating to learn how meticulous he was about his art, staging scenes over and over and over again to tell – perfectly – the story in a snapshot, and then painting them with a level of skill so rarely achieved in our industry anymore. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from his career - not only about his ability to find and convey the emotion in every piece, but also in how he was able to continue to connect with such a wide audience for so many years.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When licensing becomes ridiculous

We are always amused whenever the latest announcement is made by some manufacturer that some celebrity is now licensed for…potatoes, mattresses, handbags, furniture…go ahead and pick one, it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that a fair number of these “celebrity licensors” have nothing to do with the product, and I would not be surprised if many of them could not even pick out their own licensed items in a store. Having never seen them, don’t cha know. Even knowing how it all works, I was somewhat surprised when I received my first Paula Deen newsletter today – that they claim I signed up for. Hmmm…

I DID email the Paula Deen organization a few weeks back, but it was definitely not to sign up for their newsletter. Which is quite well done, by the way. I contacted them after the Homefires rug fiasco (where many of Paula’s “licensed” rugs were obvious copies of the Homefires rugs) and I suggested that Ms. Deen should consider a public apology and perhaps try to make amends for the apparent design theft – which I suspect she knew nothing about - and in response they have signed me up for her newsletter. Not quite what I expected, but then it sometimes IS all about the money - no matter what the commercials tell us.

And I was actually hoping for a pan of her brownies.

Friday, June 18, 2010

License! Global

I did a question and answer interview with License! Global magazine recently but (as usual...) most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe I talk too much? What they published in the Licensing Expo Show Daily you can read here but the entire interview is below.

You've recently signed two new artists, Gayle Kabaker and Marianne Richmond. Can you tell me a little about their work and what sets it apart and where you think their licensing opportunities will be?

We’ve actually signed three new artists; David Wohlrab has also joined Two Town Studios. They have three very different styles – Gayle comes from a background in fashion and commercial illustration and has a very beautiful, soft contemporary look. David Wohlrab is more of a classic illustrator, highly skilled and has worked for years in 2D and 3D product design. Marianne Richmond began with a card line and built that into a successful career as a million-selling author, speaker and connection expert. All three have the knowledge and experience to create opportunities in a wide variety of categories, so right now we are not restricting our efforts for them to anything specific.

Can you tell me about the My Friend Ronnie™ property and some new licensing agreements with that property?

Ronnie Walter, the author and artist, developed the My Friend Ronnie ™ collection to help fill the need for a women’s humor property that is clever, funny and irreverent but not snide or mean spirited. Our first My Friend Ronnie license was a gift bag at Target about 5 years ago, and since then we have been adding partners whenever appropriate. In January we debuted a full line of giftware with Westland Giftware, a 100 sku signature card and gift stationery collection from Leanin’ Tree, and a line of decorative plaques with Enesco/Dept 56. We very recently signed an international partner who will be producing My Friend Ronnie products in the Netherlands.

Are there any particular artists or collections you'll be highlighting at the SURTEX and Licensing Expo this year? What makes them stand out in the market?

We will not be exhibiting at Surtex this year for the first time in more than a decade but have expanded our presence at the Licensing Expo. We have a number of new and established properties that we will show there:

Real Women…Real Country ™ is a new humorous collection from Ronnie Walter aimed at the millions of women raising “crops, critters and kids” - whether in or out of the city – who have little time for spas, sports cars or tiny dogs that fit in their purse. It is clever and hip but with country pride – just like the 50 million women who live outside the major metros in the US. It has already been picked up for a 32 sku greeting card line.

Krista Hamrick’s “Name Above all Names” collection is unique in the marketplace – it is an illustrated alphabet of names for God, each with Scripture reference – and a beautiful work of art. It has been licensed for fabric, woven goods, canvas wall art and some personalized product, and has excellent potential for expansion into many more categories.

Artist and toy designer Betsy Veness has several new collections for toddler to tweens including Wee Tooters, Polk and Dottie and Don’t Cross Me which is a sassy tween girl property that will make you laugh out loud.

Have you signed any new licensing contracts recently or broken into any new product categories for the first time? Are there any particular categories you are interested in pursuing to a greater extent this year?

We maintain hundreds of active agreements and sign new ones almost every week, however we did get a couple of new categories recently. We are now on disposable trash bins and “edible greeting cards”, which are actually very tasty decorated cookies that are sent to people like cards. We would like to do much more work in the apparel categories and have recently partnered with a firm that has good connections in that business to market our properties to those manufacturers. Expanding our tabletop and home goods licenses is a goal – we have some penetration into those categories but would like to see more. We are also nibbling around the edges of the publishing and entertainment business to see if there is any way to transition some of our properties in those directions.

What are some retail chains your licensed products are being sold in? Any new retail outlets this year?

We have licensed product of some sort in every level of retail, and due to the number of licensees there is no sure way to track where all of it may be until we see the reports, and even then we won’t know who all of the end users are. In chains, I know as of today there is product in Target, Wal-Mart, Michaels, Lowes, Joanns, AC Moore, Archivers and Ace, we have a line widely distributed into drug and grocery so we are in many of those, and there are certainly more. We do have giftware going into Macy’s this fall and I believe that will be new location for us.

What product categories do you expect will be strong in 2010/2011? How do you think the business is shaping up?

Two big but very different questions. For us, I expect the social expression industry will stay strong along with message-based products, particularly those with connection messages. Techno-products, like ringtones and skins. And there are certainly a lot of babies out there, which may bode well for those categories that have tie-in to babies and moms. I always hesitate to predict what will be working next year - at least in writing - because it really is anyone’s guess.

Business is good, and I see that continuing. I do think, however, that we have to acknowledge the impact that technology is having on the art licensing business - it is changing virtually every aspect of our operation from how we represent the artists to how we show the designs, and to some degree it even affects what designs now work in the marketplace. Throw in the pressures of a troubled economy and the evolution of the retailer purchasing models and it becomes a very different business than it was just a couple of years ago.
Technology has also enabled the recent influx of hundreds of new artists who have heard about and want to “try” art licensing, but unfortunately this increase in artists is not matched by an increase in licensing opportunities, in fact it is quite the opposite. The result is that they are picking off the “low hanging fruit” – a card here, a gift bag there, maybe a run of fabric – and the cumulative effect is being felt by everyone in the business as the opportunities to license art become diluted by their sheer numbers.
Rather than sit back and watch, we are looking at how to adjust our strategy to take advantage of these changes, whether that’s guiding our artists toward more targeted collections, partnering with local experts in new categories and geographical areas, or by utilizing the amazing marketing reach that we can now access with the push of a keyboard button.
And then of course we need to be ready for all that to change again tomorrow…

Monday, June 14, 2010

Get In the Biz

There has been a long standing discussion about whether “licensing” is an industry or is it simply a business model for an intellectual property, or IP, owner to make their product or process available to the marketplace and hopefully generate revenue. This is the “license-out” model that we are all familiar with, where someone other than the IP creator has the ability (and desire) to commercialize the property and shares a percentage of sales with the IP owner. Now we could go on for days discussing the minutiae of this, from what rights can or should be granted, manufacturing, marketing and level of retail details, timing, terms, infringement and indemnifications, and on and on....

However, I suspect about now a lot of you are reading “blah, blah, blah” and wondering why you should care. The point I am coming around to here is that if, as I believe, licensing is a business model, then it makes sense that you as an artist - by necessity - will need to consider yourself a “business”. And how do you do that? Treat it like any other business that you may start. Read magazines such as Inc. and Fast Company, subscribe to trade journals, the EPM Licensing Letter, gift mags, Greetings Etc., maybe some trend reports. Sign up for all the E-newsletters you can find that have relevance to your desired career path. You should spend hours researching markets and manufacturers. Never pass a product in a store without picking it up to see who made it, how they made it and who is decorating it (store clerks often cautiously ask if we ‘need help’ as we do that…). Become an information sponge.

Sound like work? It most definitely is – but you are trying to add a new level of awareness that will help you recognize opportunities and at the same time make you a more valuable resource for your clients. You want your message to change from “here is a pretty snowman” to “here is what I can do to help you sell more stuff”. And if you can make the transition, eventually that is exactly what happens – you sell more stuff.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Licensing Expo

We’re cruising along over the Rockies at 39,000 feet and another Licensing Show (our ninth) is behind us. And so is the 110 degree weather – dry heat or not that is just plain hot.

It was, once again, a good show for us. There was a definite positive energy at this show, a welcome change from the last couple of years. Day 1 started with a bang right at opening and stayed busy all day, a bit unusual for this show where typically the first mornings have been a bit slower in the Art & Design section while everyone visits the newest “fireworks and Ferris wheels” on the main floor. Day 2 cooked right along as well, and true to form Day 3 dropped off quickly and by afternoon things were winding down. We had booked appointments at various times all three days and so we did not see very much down time, but the consensus I heard was that it was worthwhile for the other exhibitors as well, and also that the attendees were focused and knew what they wanted.

Some quick observations from the show:

1. The Licensing Expo seems to be less and less effective for single design art sourcing every year as the movement continues toward broader collections with a point of view and hopefully a compelling story.

2. There is not a lot of the above.
(For what it’s worth, we did hear a couple of times that the quality of the art displayed in the section was noticeably better this year - and it has always been pretty good at this show.)

3. Retailers, and therefore also manufacturers, are still being cautious about anything new or unknown so we continue to see the old established properties in play or being resurrected and brought to market. Our joke is that they want “new but proven”…good luck with that…

4. International licensing is continuing to expand for art-based properties. We had meaningful meetings with both partner agencies and manufacturers from the UK, Brazil, Denmark, Israel and Mexico.

5. Apparently the I-Pad is emerging as the greatest invention of all time, and you will be seeing fewer and fewer paper and binder type portfolios from this point onward.

All for now, seat backs and tray tables up for landing….

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Register those copyrights!

I just read a great story on about a company named Lucky Break that has won a design infringement suit against Sears and their ad agency. (It is a huge URL so you will need to search for it on the site). The story does not give all the legal details but it is important to note that one of the findings, in addition to the design copying, was that Sears et al violated the Lucky Break copyright warning statement.
Have one of those on your materials? You should.

It also brings to mind one of our more unfortunate experiences with a disputed design and copyright registration. A few years back we licensed a large collection of 3D products that had a variety of designs and dozens of skus that ran (with refreshes) for several years. We were a bit surprised when we got a call last summer from a family member who had seen our garden gnome and angels at… an HBBCS (Humungo Big Box Craft Store that does not start with “M”).

Cool, we thought – until we discovered that our manufacturer never sold them to HBBCS, but apparently their factory had. Welcome to the world of overseas sourcing.

We have been down this road before, too many times, so I sent all the appropriate catalog pages, product pictures and supporting material showing our designs pre-dating theirs off to the appropriate person at HBBCS, who immediately turned it over to their head legal counsel, who immediately contacted me with only one question – did we have the copyright registration certificate? Which unfortunately we did not, we had let some of these designs go unregistered. I still believe I could hear him chuckle, and of course they immediately concluded there was no similarity and ended our correspondence. All we could do was let it go because the costs of pursuing it would far outweigh any recovery of royalties, and the HBBCS legal staff were of course fully aware that, without our Federal registration, they were not on the hook for damages and could ignore us.

So what do you think? Our products are the top two images, the (much uglier) HBBCS products are below.

Close enough for ya?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Zoom Zoom

One of my favorite posts of late is a comment by my friend Ketra of AOP Studios, made a few weeks back in a discussion about a how-to book for Art Licensing: “frankly, anything written more than about 8 months ago is completely out of date”. (And kudos to the author, Michael Woodward, who commented and did not try to defend or dispute it, but rather he explained why her viewpoint had some validity.)

So I just finished a book called The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding along with the bonus 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding. Both were written a number of years ago, and I had to flash back to Ketra’s words of wisdom throughout the process of reading them. The authors offer a number of conclusions that may have made sense when they were writing the book, but now…well, you judge, here’s a few:
1. Advertising won’t work on the Internet
2. Yahoo won the information and search war.
3. Search engines will decline as people learn what they want to visit on the net.
4. AOL is the top dog among internet service providers.
5. E-Trade probably won’t make it as a new business.
6. Introducing Diet Coke was a mistake for Coke because it dilutes their brand.
7. Hyundai lacks product focus and isn’t likely to make it in the new world order.

Huh. My intent here is not to trash the book - Al and Laura Ries are smart people and there is a lot of good information in it - but rather to illustrate how rapidly our industry (and our world) is changing. The lifespan of usable information is no longer measured in decades, sometimes not even years, but in months, days and hours. A lot of what used to work in this business no longer does, and those artists who realize the old method of throwing crap against the wall until something sticks is GONE will be the ones whose name you see on the products. For the next few minutes anyway.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Don't Forget to Listen

We did a little traveling this past week and presented art to a couple of our clients at their offices. These meetings are usually fun, not only as opportunities to show portfolios but also as a chance to meet the rest of their staff, discuss in depth what may work for them, where they see their category going and how we can work with them to everyone’s best advantage. I found a couple of comments made during these meets to be particularly blogworthy:

The first meeting was with a supplier of paper goods to mass market retail accounts. It’s a tough market, but at the same time this market consumes a lot of designs due to the wide variety and rapid turnover in these stores. We were talking about the huge numbers of submitted designs this company receives, how they review them and their lack of time to do so. The art director was lamenting that many artists contact them and request that they go view designs on the artist’s website – “sorry, but I don’t have time to do that” was the comment. Hmmm…

The other meeting was with one of the major gift companies (They were not going to attend Surtex because the last couple of years they did not see good results from the show). We had the pleasure of meeting a VP of Product whom we had not previously worked with, and it was interesting to note that she first wanted to discuss how we work, how receptive the artists are to direction and how the project information pipeline works in our agency – and it appeared that this may be almost as important as what we had in the portfolios. Hmmm…

So, what can an artist take away from this? First and foremost, you need to refine your presentation, whether submitted or in person – send or show only what is really good, appropriate and can be easily reviewed. Portfolios should be well organized, concise and should “flow” from beginning to end. Edit, edit, edit. We change out the portfolios for every meeting or show to focus on what those particular clients may use – and nothing more. These people are busy – your goal is to get in front of them with a short but memorable presentation and then get out of the way. Second, they want to work with designers that have a professional attitude – it’s not about you, it’s about them and their product, so make sure that is the message that comes across.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Surtex is coming, Surtex is coming!

There has been a lot of chatter recently about the coming Surtex show, I guess for good reason because for many years it was the place to be seen for art licensors. The show (an acronym for Surface and Textile design) started 20-some years ago as a business to business event where designers could sell their wares to manufacturers, and early on most did sell outright, but through the years licensing has taken over. The show once featured almost 350 exhibitors and occupied several of the halls at Javits in its heyday. But things do change, and it has been shrinking for a lot of reasons – such as online technology, the growth of newer show venues, fluctuating attendee numbers, the decline of the concurrent National Stationery Show, the relentless price increases, the drop-out of experienced artists – just to name a few. It’s not the show it used to be, and our own measurable results from the last couple years there were not what they used to be either, so for the first time in more than a decade we will not be exhibiting at Surtex. (You will still find us exhibiting elsewhere – Atlanta, CHA, Licensing Expo, maybe others).
Not being there however does not change how I feel about agents and artists who don’t exhibit attending the show: they should not be there.

OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh as there are a few valid reasons for an artist to attend – to evaluate exhibiting, attend a seminar, look for an agent, you’re an art student or you are represented on the floor. But that’s about it. For years exhibitors have been complaining to show mgmt about all the portfolios being shown in the lobby, the food courts, sometimes inside Surtex itself – and nothing was being done about it. Granted it is difficult to police, particularly with the NSS going on, but many if not most of the artists/agents doing the showing were there for one reason – a free ride on the backs of those paying dearly to exhibit in the show. I still bristle every time I read a comment from a non-exhibiting artist who says they are going to Surtex to meet licensees, and shake my head in wonder as exhibitors give them advice on how to do it. (More on that later…). It is gratifying to hear from some of the manufacturers that they will refuse to meet with non-exhibiting artists within the Javits center, but unfortunately they are few and far between.

So yes, Surtex is coming, but as I have said before: this is a business to business event and not a public art fair – if you are not paying for the opportunity to do business there, please don’t take advantage of those that are.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Do your homework

Being a native Minnesotan I had to watch the pilot episode of “Happy Town” last night, a new TV series set in a Minnesota town. It was, in a word, awful. But it did have us howling in laughter as gaff after gaff made it clear that whomever was producing this mess has likely never set foot in MN. For instance, the show opens: it’s a winter night and a girl walking along the edge of a frozen lake (complete with fish houses) gets soaked by rain from a sudden thunderstorm. Hardly. Cut to someone’s driveway where they are talking, amidst randomly scattered little white snow piles (wrong), about launching a center console boat (waaay wrong boat for MN) - but the next scene shows them walking across a frozen lake to an ice fishing shack. And where exactly are they launching that boat? Then we go downtown and there are NY style open air fresh cut flower stands. In winter. Followed by a street festival. In winter. I won’t even begin to comment on the idiotic folksy dialogue.

So why am I telling you this? It’s a perfect example of what happens when you plunge ahead without doing your homework. One of the surest ways to be pegged as an amateur in this business (and then ignored) is to shotgun out designs and product ideas without checking first to see if they are appropriate for the companies you send them to. Giftware companies don’t want napkins, inspirational suppliers don’t want cartoon characters, wall art suppliers have no use for home goods mockups. If you have not researched a manufacturer enough to know what they make, what art styles they use and where they sell their products then you are definitely not ready to send them samples of your artwork. Art licensing is a business to business sales profession, and your customers are hoping to work with knowledgeable professionals – don’t let them down as they generally have neither the time nor the inclination to train you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Product Design

As the surge toward what I call “Popular Art Licensing” continues (magazine out soon) we have been seeing more and more submissions and web displays consisting of “cookie cutter” product pages attached to design after design. In some cases they are appropriate, in others most definitely not. A common trap for a new artist is to buy the product templates (there are several current suppliers) and start slapping on their designs using a decal-type approach without giving much thought to whether it makes sense. (Think bananas on a coffee cup, poodles on a dinner plate…)

The view seems to be that going into art licensing as a business is a natural extension or progression of an artist’s career path. I would suggest that is backwards – art licensing is more an extension of product design and marketing.

Product design is one of the most difficult, but also most important, skills to learn. It is always a moving target combining elements of trend, manufacturing costs and time to market, realities such as packaging and breakage, current competition, customer demographics and more. Of course you won’t know all of that starting out, it will come as you work with the manufacturers, however you can learn much by studying what is on the market now. Never pass by a potentially licensed product in a store without picking it up to see who made it and if someone is credited on the copyright. Learn the difference between acrylic, resin and ceramic, decal and hand painted, flat and embossed. What is a die cut? What are embellishments? Really what you are doing here is learning a second language – that of manufacturing and product marketing. What colors don’t reproduce well? What mediums can produce detailed sculpts? Which are more cost effective? Art directors may pass on your designs for any of these reasons, so the more you know the more likely you are to design saleable product.

I will say it again: to really succeed in this business you need to change your thinking and your focus, because art licensing is not about the art, it is about selling product. Collections that are page after (tiring) page of the same templates just don’t work, instead they should be unique and clever adaptations of the artwork into potential products. If you look up “product design” you will find terms such as innovation, idea generation, concept development, usability – those you can take to the bank.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Character licensing

We get a fair number of inquiries from artists who are looking to license one or more characters that they have created. It generally starts like this:

I have designed a set of characters and am looking for an agent.

OK, possibly the start of something. My favorite experience licensing character collections: we were barely into a presentation to a top exec at a major plush (toy) manufacturer when he stopped us and asked “Do you have a book yet?” Our answer was no, and that was the end of our presentation. On your way, folks.

And we had a really, really good property…we still do…

The competition in character licensing is beyond fierce. A walk through any children’s book section or the Licensing Show in Vegas is very telling - hundreds of competing properties, some decades old, some with the paint still drying, all vying for every available inch of shelf space. Those properties that are not for children or teens are in a tougher market yet where only a few will ever see the light of day. So why bother? Put simply, a successful character property can generate licenses like no other, across a wide variety of products, and may also have a much longer lifespan than traditional design applications. The rewards of success can be great but the road to get there is long and involved, and you are up against some of the biggest companies, the brightest minds and the best marketing in the business. Most (non-movie) characters did not start out intending to be a licensed property, rather it is an extension of something else – a comic strip, children’s book, cartoon or animated series – and the licensing success came about much later.

The message here is that characters are not a quick road to success. Our My Friend Ronnie™ property debuted several big licenses last January, which was great, but what isn’t evident is that this property has actually been evolving for 5 or 6 years. The first license was 5 years ago for a Target gift bag, and it has been continually refined and expanded since then. Also, the art is the easy part – you need to tell a story, have a point of view, develop rapport with your target audience – all while being perceived as unique and fresh.

Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Of course not – so get to work!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Enduring Success

I was listening to an interview with Maria Bartiromo on my drive in to the studio this morning; she has a new book out titled The 10 Laws of Enduring Success. The interview was actually quite good, she is very well spoken and while she is primarily known as a financial journalist, her book is supposed to be more about life lessons and enduring hard times by identifying what really matters in life.

I have not yet read this book, however what really struck me this morning was her answer to the interviewer’s question of “What should a person take away from this interview? If there was only one, what would you say is the most important lesson for someone to remember?” Her answer was that the person who is flexible and who is willing and able to adapt to the changing marketplace will always be successful. My immediate thought was “this is a powerful message for artists that want a career in art licensing”. We have been preaching this to our own artists (ad nauseam they’ll likely tell you) and as you follow the careers of the successful licensed artists you will see that they live this philosophy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Some time ago (months, not years) I penned an article that was intended to be a caution to new artists about all the art licensing “coaches” that were popping up everywhere like dandelions in June. This was, and still is, a relatively new phenomenon in art licensing, a business that is young itself – really only about 30 years or so – but it was surprising how quickly they were proliferating. We began to hear stories about wannabe artists paying out big money, literally thousands of dollars, or being hooked into long term obligations just to learn about this new arena called “art licensing”. And as licensing agents we were seeing some of the results – dozens of nicely done, cookie-cutter presentations of what was often terrible art. ("Beautifully presented crap" said a fellow agent). It was apparent that money was being taken from these artists regardless of whether or not they had a chance to succeed in the market as licensed artists. And that started my keyboard tapping.

The article was titled The Art of Reality and you can read it here.

We posted it on the Two Town website and it garnered a few responses, mostly from fellow agents (yes, we snoop on each other’s websites all the time) and some more from clients and art directors – all of whom were very supportive of the message. After a few weeks it was cited in a couple of social media groups, mentioned in some blogs and then published (with permission) on a couple blogs, all of which is good. It still brings a comment every now and then. What I have found most surprising is two fold: first, it has been universally interpreted as a commentary on the state of art licensing rather than art coaching – which is OK, I get it. Second, the volume of artist submissions at Two Town increased dramatically, some of them even mentioning the article - and many of them comprised of the aforementioned... um, substandard All we could say was - really?

So, here I am again. I wanted to name the blog “Thoughts from the Licensing Curmudgeon” but Ronnie won’t let me, and as usual she is probably right. I can’t promise that title won’t be appropriate at times as my intention is to tell it like it is (or at least how I think it is), but I also intend to have fun with my new bully pulpit – and I do look forward to all of your comments and questions.