Friday, September 26, 2014

We're Tee'd Off

We spent a couple days in Orlando attending the Surf Expo and the Imprinted Sportswear Show which were co-located in the ORL Convention Center last week. The hundreds of surfer dudes, awesome ski boats, skateboarders and strolling bikini models quickly convinced us that our best beach days are past but we still gathered priceless information on what we can target, and perhaps even more info about what will never work for us. Both are good to have.

Over the years it has seemed like every submission we receive suggests that their art, among other things, would be good for apparel. Which in reality means tee shirts (and sweats and caps). Unfortunately, people, that falls into the "easier said than done" column:

The decorated tee business is weird. It’s a big industry but the VAST majority of it is local, both in subject and production, and often it all gets lumped into a category commonly called “resort”, where the tee decorations can cover not only regional locales but schools, sports, outdoors anything, hobbies, lifestyle subjects, humor, pets, brands and more. There are thousands of what are called “apparel decorators” ranging from one man shops up to big factories capable of pumping out thousands of shirts. Over the last few years large POD websites utilizing direct-to-garment printing, along with improved technology that’s easier to learn and use have brought stiff new competition to the game while at the same time order sizes and market times have been dropping. Sound familiar? Most decorators (who sell wholesale) sell their tees to boutique level stores and that basic model has not changed for years. They print up samples, take them to shows (or use catalogs) and only produce what is ordered. By necessity. Decorated apparel is difficult because of the inventory challenges – there are many sizes, colors, styles and fabrics to deal with even for a tee shirt, and it is impossible to guess what will sell and what won’t with enough accuracy to keep you in business - so they don’t. It’s also hard for the retailers as they need to lay in an inventory with significant space requirements, and if it does sell well the most popular designs/sizes sell out first so they need to reorder frequently to fill in the gaps. And then there’s that whole trend problem…   

Mass market tees are a bit different, they are almost always brand based and often produced overseas in a large run from cheap stock so they can be sold for ridiculously low prices. Tough business to get in or to be in.

So, what does this mean for a potential licensor? Basically, it is difficult (at best) to make decent money licensing onto decorated apparel unless you have a large platform and the potential for brand status. There are still a few decorators out there who will license individual designs and they are very picky about what they choose. We sat with one (a client) at the show chatting about how the biz has deteriorated over the years – like many licenses, it now pays a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand. But, they do keep selling and it all adds up, so not all is lost!
I quote: “Back in the 80’s and 90’s we couldn’t do anything wrong, but now – now we’re just trying to figure out what’s next and keep the doors open”. 

Yeah, ain't it the truth.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Who’s Is That Behind the Curtain?

Periodically somebody in an art licensing forum will ask for some “manufacturers” to post their opinion on some subject. Fair question, but there is never a response for a couple reasons: there’s only a handful of licensees paying any attention to the groups, and most of those that do will never expose themselves because of the flood of inquiries that will follow.  I’d say most licensees are bewildered by all the social hoopla surrounding art licensing because all they want is to source a component of their product at a fair price without a lot of hassle.

The “Artist” licensing community is very different from the “Art” licensing community. The first is an empowering peer group, unusually supportive, generally helpful and a uniquely wonderful aspect of this business. The second, well, actually the second isn’t a community at all, we just like to think that it is. The vast majority of your licensee clients will not know each other, in fact often don’t even know OF each other. A few exceptions do exist, such as people who have moved between companies or participate in trade organizations such as the GCA, but it’s a small number. Things are a tad different when you head into brand territory, not because they are exchanging information but because most brand activity is high profile and ultimately an effort to drive sales, hence they maintain an acute awareness of their competitors. But rest assured Disney is not giving licensing tips to Nickelodeon.

In the Artist community the focus tends to be on the artist’s vision and journey, but on the licensee side of the table it’s ultimately about cost, efficiency and product performance on the market, and this is where the wheels start to come off for some people. Don’t get caught up in assuming, and then expecting, that your interests match up perfectly to those of your licensees. While they may align well enough to make a saleable product (they better) many artists are dismayed to discover that ultimately the client’s focus is always on the outcome, which is to build, ship, and sell at a profit.

The “licensing out” business model can have many variations but that one constant - that licensees on the “licensing in” side will make decisions based on THEIR endgame – is always at the forefront. Opportunities will not be doled out in equal pieces like cake at a party, there’s nothing fair about how it works so don’t drink THAT Kool-Aid. No one has the “right” to be successful licensing their work, you only have the right to try - and the right to work smarter and harder to get more of that cake.

Mmmm - love me a big slice of angel food…

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Great! Idea Company

There has been a lot of talk about how the product licensing market has changed for people on all sides of the equation. There has been an ongoing flood of new art and artists, designers and concepts, coaches and contests, all competing for attention in the market. At the same time to further confound things an economic downturn created widespread risk aversion among both licensees and retailers, and new retail buying models continue to force both sku counts and prices downward. But not all models have changed along with the times – in particular agency representation. Yet.

We are updating how we work to better serve our clients.

Two Town Studios (The Great! Idea Company) will now represent product concepts and design-based collections without requiring that those intellectual property owners enter into a full representation contract. We will be able to help our clients cut through the clutter inherent in today’s busy market by providing them with a steady supply of fresh, fully curated, product-worthy designs. For artists and designers we can provide an exposure opportunity for those who have a noteworthy concept they want to market but either don’t have, or don’t want, full representation.  We will also continue to represent a very select group of designers in the traditional manner as well.

If you are a licensee who is not currently on our email list (hundreds are) please contact us to receive regular updates of new designs – we would love to have you! If you are an artist, designer or product developer and have a collection or concept that you would like us to review, please see the submissions page (here) or contact us with any questions.

Come along, it’s going to be an exciting ride!

 Check out our new website at

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Snippets Spring 2014

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

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

Let me know when you figure it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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