How Hard Can That Be?

They were replaying a segment of a Charlie Rose interview with Steve Martin this morning on the CBS Morning Show. Whether you like him or not (I do), Steve Martin is an immensely talented comic, writer, actor, teacher, musician and a serious collector of art to boot. He was asked what kind of advice he would give to his students. He said, basically, “People ask me all the time about how do you make it in showbiz, how do you get an agent and so on. I tell them to be so good that they can’t ignore you.”
Sounds like some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. Simple, but certainly not easy.


Who’s Your Daddy?

The art director loves it, the review committee loves it, but when it comes time to sign a contract someone along the line does not understand the message and kills the project. In this business it is sometimes difficult to get a handle on who you are actually working to please, and this can definitely be one of the more confusing aspects of art licensing. The first answer many artists come to (or is it the last answer?) is that you are working for yourself. The idea is that you are a little business, an independent contractor, and everything you do builds your reputation, furthers your career and advances your brand. Another approach is to believe that you are working to connect with the end user – that consumer who finally buys the product, because if it doesn’t speak to them…no sales. Or could it be the art director who picks your design from the hundreds spread out on the workroom table? Or his/her boss? And then there is that retailer whose commitment will determine whether or not the project ever sees the light of day? Could it be them?
Identifying your final customer can be difficult. Think about this: you are not a customer of Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Google, Yahoo, Bing, or most anyone who offers you a free service. You are their PRODUCT, and their customers are the advertisers and marketers who pay them for your information. If you and I both call Google with a complaint they will likely address my concerns and ignore yours because I pay them every month to place my business info in front of…you. The social media companies have created free platforms for conversation and then have sold eavesdropping rights to marketers. They didn’t bother to ask your permission because – that’s right, you are not their customer. Or this: you design a really cool men’s gift item that will be a slam dunk with every guy who sees it. But it doesn’t sell because their wives and girlfriends don’t get it. Who are the customers for men’s gifts? Women.
It’s not that what WE believe about a design isn’t interesting and valuable, it’s just that what your customer thinks matters more. Understanding the whole picture is important, and there is a lot of time and energy expended toward doing just that. The marketing people at Disney can tell you the average age and gender of the buyers of a licensed product, and also the average age and gender of the final recipient. Worldwide. Try to become client focused and work on understanding who is making what decisions, and why – the ability to correctly identify your real customer is an essential skill that will serve you well in your career.

Say What?

One of the nice things about being in this business is that art licensing, for the most part, is not a cutthroat business. If you have ever spent much time in other commercial disciplines you know exactly what I am talking about, and also know how rare this is. Yes, you have competition and it is silly to give away all of your hard earned knowledge to your competitors, but most people in this biz are quick to share enough advice to at least keep someone from stepping into quicksand. This “refined attitude” also extends into our relationships with our clients, making our interaction truly cooperative rather than adversarial – unfortunately not a universal situation in other types of business either. This has allowed us to make many good friends in the industry, to the point where we look forward to the shows not only to do great business but also as a chance to hang out with our pals.
 So where am I going with this? Well, we spend a lot of time with our clients both at the shows and after the shows, and there is nothing like good spirited cocktail conversation to find out what is really happening out there. We were chatting one recent evening at dinner and one of our art directors made this surprising comment:
“All of us manufacturers read the questions and comments in the art licensing groups, follow the tweets and listen to what is being said out there. It’s part of our job. None of us will ever openly comment because of the flood of artist inquiries that would follow, but these artists need to realize that what they say and do could determine whether or not I will be interested in working with them.“ She went on to say that someone who rants and raves or makes snotty comments on a thread (about manufacturers…?) gets their attention, and that there are people they will never work with because, based on what they have seen, they already know it would be difficult.
It is difficult in this business to separate the personal from the professional in our lives, and that is particularly true for artists. The move to a 24-hour social media driven world has only exacerbated that problem, so one must be doubly aware that you are going to be accountable for everything you say – just look at the Olympic athletes that are being bounced out of the games for inappropriate comments. You can get bounced too, the only difference is you will never know it.
Remember what Mom said…”If you have nothing nice to say…”