Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ship It Now!

As I look back over the blog titles that did not see the light of day (yet), I am struck by how many of them resonate with the message that things have changed, that our biz is fundamentally different.
 Some were:
The End of Freelance, The Winner Loses (cattle calls), Is Art Licensing Dead?, What Now, Ten Things Your Licensing Coach Won’t Tell You…wow, enough of those, I’m even depressing myself.
So as I write this end of year blog, I am torn between A.) Happy Holidays and Have a Great New Year, and B.)  This Is What We Saw and It Ain’t Pretty.

Well, you know me…

So as I sorted through the multitude of topics, game changers worthy of a year end blog – I discarded the faltering economy, because even though it has significant impact it really doesn’t matter, business is good in some places and bad in others – just like it always is. I passed on the digital revolution, because it is pretty much old news now. If you aren’t rolling with the new opportunities provided by our digital world then it’s time for you to take your ball and bat and go home…game over. The new rules of competition almost made it, but again – if you haven’t figured out how you will innovate enough to stand out from the thousands streaming into the world of art licensing, well, get on the bus to home with the ball and bat person previously mentioned.  The relationship between supply and demand has fundamentally changed, and long term chronic oversupply is the new norm. So where does that leave us?

“Shut up and draw a picture already.”

It wasn’t me who said it...but I certainly could have. I came back full circle to the subject that started this blog, that subject being the art licensing coaches. Only now I can call it the Coaching Industry. Try searching “art licensing” and you will be confronted with line after line of how-to sites, fee and free both, looking to share expertise (regardless of whether they have it or not) about Art Licensing. The Google face of our little piece of the licensing world has been co-opted by merchants of opportunity who are selling the dream. I understand the people who are selling the programs, books, tools, etc. Many either don’t or can’t make any money licensing art, so they want your money and quite frankly most (not all) really don’t give a rip about whether you make any back. Trust me on this.  But then there’s the no-fee crowd, where the Art of Licensing has been replaced by the Art of Talking About Licensing.

Artists who freely admit that they are new to licensing are writing books and teaching classes on how to license, how to exhibit, how to approach manufacturers or how to market yourself. Other newbies are chronicling their step by step journey into the business, posting interviews, promoting how-to articles and short-cut tricks about a business they have never worked in. Am I the only one who finds this ludicrous? (Actually, no need to answer that, I’ve heard…). Sometimes these announcements make us laugh out loud, and others are actually kind of sad because their art is just so…awful... and we can see they will never have a career in this business. I do get the camaraderie and social connection, mutual support and all the rest of it, but there is an unfortunate message being sent with regularity – that if you work hard enough at learning the business you will eventually succeed at it – and unless you have exceptional art skills that message is wrong. Among the disservices being done to new artists that may be the worst.
So here’s my best advice for your New Year resolution:
Quit planning. Stop talking, draw some pictures and get them in front of someone who may buy them. Ship, as Seth Godin says. Ready, Fire, Aim. Thumb your nose at the coaches and write the check to yourself. The best way to learn this business is to jump in and do business. You cannot steer when you are not moving. Learn and reinvent yourself as you go, just as the business of art licensing will continue to reinvent itself while you are doing it. You’re not ever going to be ready, so launch and hang on for the ride.

I was awarded this fortune after lunch today at our little local eatery – truly – and I hope it will come to pass for each and every one of you:

Happy New Year!  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Somebody Help This Man!

I wrote a note to Chick-Fil-A today telling them how much they disgust me. Not their sandwiches, unfortunately I kinda like those, it’s really too bad I will never have another one. The actions of the corporation, however, merit the anger of every thinking person in the creative business world (and beyond). This is why:

“Vermont's Eat More Kale is a small, eco-friendly t-shirt business with a mission to promote sustainable food messages. The company's sole proprietor, Bo Muller-Moore, has used the EAT MORE KALE logo in his t-shirt designs for more than 10 years, and he recently applied for a federal trademark on his business name. A federal trademark would block other artists from copying his design (which has happened in the past) and protect the livelihood he's worked so hard to build.

But if Chick-fil-A, a giant multi-million dollar fast food corporation has it's way, Muller-Moore won't be allowed to protect his business. The Corporate Goliath has threatened to block EAT MORE KALE's trademark attempt and shut the business down. Chick-fil-A uses the slogan "Eat Mor Chikin,"and it alleges that EAT MORE KALE confuses CHICK-fil-A customers and dilutes its multi-million dollar industry.”

The above is quoted from a petition drive at change.org intended to help stop this case of arrogant bullying. Yes, you have to protect your trademarks, but do the lawyers at Chick-fil-A seriously believe the general public is so stupid that we just can’t tell the difference between “Eat Mor Chikin”and “Eat More Kale”? And that we will forget to buy their sandwiches because we are so confused by the Chikin – Kale conundrum? (Really, no need to answer that…)

Bo Muller-Moore seems like a really nice guy who cares about his fellow man and the world around him, and he certainly doesn’t deserve to be steamrollered by a bunch of out-of-control corporate lawyers. This is so out of whack that even the State of Vermont has joined the fight to help him out. You can check out his website here, and sign the petition here. You can also go to the Chick-fil-A website and drop them a note from there, which I did this morning. Do those things, and then buy one of Bo's shirts too because it just feels right.

Oh – and eat more kale, it’s good for you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You…

In a recent USA Magazine interview, when actor Peter Gallagher was asked what advice he gave his children about the entertainment business, he said he told them “The days of being an actor for hire are over. If you want to survive you have to create content, otherwise you won’t make it.” I was a little surprised by that statement; while I talk a lot about the digital revolution affecting art licensing I hadn’t really thought about a pre-digital vs. post digital impact on actors. It really shows how truly pervasive these changes are. (Interesting to note that accusing a company or person of being “pre-digital” is now a slam…)

“Technology is just the delivery boy, content is still king.”

Those of you familiar with the basics of web design know the Content Is King philosophy – basically that without sizable, recognizable content it really doesn’t matter how technically advanced your offering is, you will be invisible on the web. However, while it is still a basic tenet of site building, it has now been updated to GOOD Content is King. Relevant, targeted and frequent updates that connect with your visitors are necessary to cut through the fog of multi-media pollution out there, be it for your blog, website or… your art licensing career.

Yup, art licensing. We have been talking to our artists about upping the content/connection piece of their work for quite some time. For some it’s effortless, for others it’s a real challenge. We have even been told “That’s just not me, it’s not what I do”. And that’s OK, we get it – but it IS what the market expects of you now. It’s not about your skill, although skill is necessary. It’s not about your marketing expertise, although marketing is necessary. It’s not about who you know, although it certainly helps to know the right people. In some ways it’s not even about your art – but more about how your art connects with that customer. There are thousands of incredible fine artists and amazing graphic designers whose finely-honed skills would blow the socks off most everyone in this business, but they will never have a licensing career without the ability to make a connection that runs deeper than the application of paint or ink to paper. As an agent recently commented “The story trumps the art”.

What’s your story, where’s your message, what do you have to say? It’s in you somewhere, and you may be surprised how many people really do want to hear it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Step right up, the show is about to begin!

We spent last week at the IAAPA trade show in Orlando. If you have never been, I can assure you it is probably one of the most active, colorful, and noisy assaults on your senses that you will ever experience. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions covers a lot of territory – manufacturers of roller coasters, arcade games, bungee jumpers, zip lines, robotics, food and drink distribution, water parks, plush toys, interactive carnival games, inflatables from little bounce houses to 40 foot tall behemoths – and this only begins to describe the spectacle. I doubt any other show packs in more fun per square foot.

We are still decompressing from the 4-day show, but one of the most powerful impressions we have taken home with us is that you can quickly tell which companies have figured out what business they are in, and which ones don’t know yet. A lot of these companies want to tell you about how much better their manufacturing processes are, or that they use superior materials, or that their wear surfaces are this weight material, and they meet ISO #10 Million, and blah, blah, blah. And others will just hand you the laser rifle to try, or a cup of Dippin’ Dots, or strap a ten year old into a harness and stand back grinning when they fire off the bungees and send them squealing into the sky.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you where the lines formed.

There was a great piece in Home Textiles recently that talks about the failure of the railroads (it was actually about the Amazon impact on retail) and how they were so involved in trying to outperform each other on the rails that they missed the rise of the airline industry. They believed they were in the railroad business when they should have known they were in the transportation business; they were completely blindsided and gave up their position as the undisputed leader in long distance transportation. We saw this first hand at the show – the difference between companies that think they are in the manufacturing business, and those who have realized they are manufacturers in the entertainment business. It may seem like word play but it is a critical distinction.

How about you, what business are you in? Think you are an artist in the art business? Maybe an artist in the licensing business? Or are you an artist who works to assist manufacturers in the product design business? Are you focused on getting your designs out there making money, or on helping your customers have an enjoyable experience?

Think about it, and remember, the line forms on the right....

Sunday, November 6, 2011

What's The Big Idea?

They did a little retrospective this morning on the CBS Morning Show about Andy Rooney who just passed away last week. I always enjoyed his commentaries, (a fellow curmudgeon bond) and I can only hope that I might still be commenting on the state of things at 92 years old. He did not suffer fools gladly, and one his pet peeves was that people often asked him how he could keep coming up with ideas for his writing. His response was along the lines of “How stupid is that? With all there is going on in the world you would have to ask about finding ideas?” He had a point – there is a universe of great ideas out there, and some people seem to be effortlessly plugged into it. If you are one of them, congratulations, if not – well, welcome to the rest of the world.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."  - Albert Einstein

Generating fresh ideas can be difficult for anyone, however it can be a particularly thorny problem in a creative business – but only if you let it. If you read many of these posts you will know that I am a big proponent of innovation, in fact I would say that particular skill may be the single most important factor in the long term success of a licensing artist. And the beauty is – it’s a teachable skill, not just a gift. Researchers have learned that the creative process is much more systematic than previously believed, and you can learn how to better access those parts of your brain. Much work has been done on how to teach creativity by everyone from academia to corporations to the military – and it’s all out there for the taking. A Whack Upside the Head, Thinkertoys, Cats, The Art of Innovation, Creative Intelligence, and about a thousand other books are devoted to teaching you how to find and exercise your creative muscle.  Which is how you should try looking at it – it’s a muscle like any other that needs training and regular exercise to be at its optimum, and like any muscle in training, the more you work it the easier it gets.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


I tend to save various quotes and pearls of wisdom that I come across on a many-page running document that I can pull up and read when I need some inspiration. Some can find their way into a blog post and others are so well said that they need nothing more – none are mine but they all can relate to our licensing world… so here are a few to start those wheels turning…

  • No one can possibly achieve any real and lasting success or get rich in business by being a conformist.
    - J. Paul Getty
  • Have more than one good idea handy.
  • Remember, you can’t SELL anything to anyone; however you need to be there when people are ready to buy.
  • Nice people can still have a competitive mindset.
  • Markets and profits have changed with the new retailer driven market. Getting an item into Target used to be a very lucrative proposition; you could earn thousands of dollars over a period of several years. Now, you will often make only hundreds because they have beat the wholesale prices down and cranked their profit percentages up, and the only person left making decent money is the last one selling it.
  • While the calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1.5 tons.
    - Popular Mechanics article, 1949
  • You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.
    - Henry Ford

  • Most artists exhibiting at trade shows do not make back the cost of exhibiting.
  • Small business is uniquely different from big business in just about every way - they are two entirely different animals. But there is an incessant parade of articles, books, papers, and research of giant businesses with the intent of showing us small business people what we can look like if we grow up and become a giant.  Most of us don't want to be a giant.
  • Inspiration usually comes during the work, rather than before it."
    Madeleine L'Engle, American writer
  • 10 years ago I thought “I can’t wait to sign up to something… so they can tell me what to do, and give me bus, and give me a tour so I can sing” and finally realized… that doesn’t happen. They’re waiting for you to say “this is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to do it.”
    - musician Jason Mraz
  • Ten percent of all the photos ever taken were taken in the last 12 months.
  • You have ten seconds to get someone’s attention – don’t waste it by asking them what they need – tell them instead.
  • “I’m looking for someone to fill that hole in the market.”
      - Simon Cowell about the X Factor
  • Each year over 30,000 people graduate from art schools in just the U.S.
  • And of course that old Wayne Gretsky standby – so overused but so true:
    “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Any thoughts or have any to add? Let's hear 'em...

Monday, October 17, 2011

I hear the train a'comin'...

It's rollin' round the bend...ya just gotta love Johnny Cash.

There is a measure in traditional publishing called “sales per book” that has often been used as a measure of the health of the industry. How many total sales, how many books published. Not a refined measurement, just a single number that can be tracked. This number is predicted to dive - big time - next year, as digital innovation wreaks havoc in a mature industry.

An industry is defined as mature by a number of factors, one being that it has passed the “emerging” and “growth” phases and has reached a plateau where it grows, or shrinks, along with the rest of the economy. (Sound familiar?) This is usually a time where companies tend to be stable, growing slowly if at all and improving profitability is their focus. For investors, mature industries tend to be a safe haven, and while individual companies in the industry may continue to come and go, the industry practices and products are mostly homogeneous.  The timeframe here can be years, decades or even longer – look at tires, oil, tobacco, steel, insurance, utilities, even airlines – not much has changed below the surface. This is blue chip territory.
While it sounds pleasant and relaxing, it’s a dangerous place for an industry. The only way to increase market share is to take it from your competitors, either by price or by innovation.  The trick is to not fall victim to game-changing innovations that you did not see coming. Ask Kodak, Xerox, Borders and a hundred advertising agencies – they can tell you.

You could also ask a hundred graphic designers. 

For many, many years the graphic design model has been based upon a step by step client/designer relationship: Here’s my project/OK here’s an idea /No, not what I wanted/ OK how about this/ I like that/ Here’s my bill. For a freelancer, agency or employee it was basically the same script. The mass access to design software took away many of the simpler projects, but being able find their way around the software did not automatically make them competent designers, so the business model continued to work.

 And then design went global. Websites popped up offering design work, many through “contests” that have dozens of designers submitting work - to spec – to “win” the fee, often 100 – 300 dollars. DesignCrowd, Mycroburst, 99Designs, 48Hourslogo, Crowdspring, Choosa, Brandstack, GFX Contests, Design Outpost, Design Contests, Pixish, Blurgroup, ODesk, Hatchwise, ShopForDesigns …see the problem? These sites already account for literally tens of thousands of designers and have paid out millions of dollars. And don’t kid yourself – a fair number of those designers are top level talent who are thrilled to get a 200 fee. That goes a long way in many parts of the world.

So what does this have to do with Art Licensing? Let’s put it this way – that train is rumbling down our tracks too. Already some of these sites are offering illustration, and what I expect will happen is this: these companies are going to come around to licensing as a way to utilize these assets – both the crowds and the huge libraries of designs that they are building.

 This has the potential to be a definite game changer, but instead of deciding if it is good or bad, think about this - now that we see it coming, how does one stay in front of it? Any ideas?