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.

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.

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!

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.


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 …art. 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.