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….

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”.

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”.