Snippets – Talking It Up In Atlanta

And so I sez to the guy I sez…
Were they talkative or what! Did I happen to mention in the last post that Atlanta was a good market…? Maybe once or twice? Happy people tend to be more forthcoming, so I guess they were pretty darn happy at the Mart judging by the number of worthy snippets. They had me scribbling like crazy: 
“Fashion accessories are doing great – without all these handbags and jewelry who knows if this building would still be here? This (gift) industry needed a good push and that’s what provided it.”
– the President of a gift company
 “All this stuff with words – how many things can you have in your house that are either barking orders at you or telling you to be fulfilled?” – an agent
“This is really nice but I’ll have to ask the reps if it will sell.”
– a manufacturer in a meeting
“Some concepts just need to die a natural death – I have boxes full.” – a well known artist
“We are definitely in plaque and mug overload now, there are just way too many to choose from.” – a retailer
“I used to do a ton of them but I haven’t painted a snowman in five years.” – a well known artist
“We’re trying to downsize the number of artists we work with, there are a billion of them now. We would much rather sit down and develop a line as opposed to picking up a piece of it here and there” – an art director
“To me it’s like a giant garage sale, pretty soon it looks like all the same crap everywhere.” – an art director about walking the Mart
“My puzzle royalties are down so that must mean other products are selling – puzzles always do better when the economy is bad.”
– a successful licensed artist
“We’re doing a lot of net and Amazon sales now, and internet skus have to build for months before you have anything so those production schedules are completely different than our regular retail one. It’s a crazy model but we’re really having fun with it.”
– from a garden company
“My God, those are so ugly! You have to wonder who is buying that.” – overheard in the Mart hallway
“We’re trying to get away from words.”
– a product director (and a very telling statement…)
“Success in this business can be very hard emotionally because one day you are the flavor of the week and the next day they have moved on.” – a successful artist
“Your world changed so of course our world changed along with it.” – a gift company owner to a retailer
“It used to be a great category but China destroyed it.”
– a manufacturer
“Here’s the problem – too much content in a catalog is worthless. You get their attention for one line and a picture, maybe 3 or 4 seconds max. If it takes more than that it won’t work.”
– a retailer about a sku-heavy line
“Our first day open was the best single day we have ever had.”
– a rep on the phone in the hallway
“Every artist who wants to stay in this business has to look at things differently now – because it IS different.” – an agent
“Trend is hard. It’s great when you hit one but you cannot get stuck with one single item in inventory because you will never, ever sell it afterwards.” – a manufacturer
“Artists don’t realize that what works in New York may not work at all in California, and they need to pay attention to that.”
– a gift manufacturer
“I love the idea but I don’t like the art.” – an art director in a meeting
“It’s a nice holiday (design) except for the lime green, we can’t sell any holiday with lime green on it.” – a retailer
“It’s more about the reps than the retailers. If you can get one person in the agency to like it, they will tell some others and eventually rep management decides to push it, then other reps notice or hear about it from their retailers who want it, so they all push it and then it really takes off.”
– a gift manufacturer about marketing a new line
And finally, something we all need to keep in mind….
“This is hysterical but it’s going to be one of those products where, to make it work, we need to figure out who we are selling it to and why they are buying it.”
– owner of a gift company about a humor collection

Runnin’ Wild in Atlanta

Five days in the Atlanta market and I can tell you this – if I see another wall sign/plaque/wall-anything/ with block/script/hand-drawn letters using the same shopworn messages that can be found on a hundred others it will be way too soon. And chalkboard design – it is so pervasive now that they have all morphed into the same look and feel so you absolutely cannot tell one company’s from another. Usually that means bye-bye trend.
But enough of that. Great show even if the traffic was a little off. The place was reeking with positivity. Overflowing with opportunity. Or if Bush 43 was still around, maybe he’d say it had oppor-tivity-posi-tunity.
We decided the Word of the Week was “positive”. Everybody we met with (and in 5 days of running we met with a lot) was up, they were happy with the way the market was going, the customers were buying and they wanted to talk product. There was a lot more of “I think we have something here, expand this, add X more designs and send it to me” rather than the “well, send it over and we’ll look at it” that used to be the norm. Of course you never really know until it hits the paperwork (and maybe not even then) but the message was much more encouraging. We talked with the owner of one of the bigger rep agencies and she was quite happy with sales at the show because on Thursday they had their biggest single show day ever with orders topping seven figures. Ya gotta love that!
One of our end-of-day meetings with a gift company was particularly interesting – we were sitting around chatting with the owners and a couple of their long term retailers when they asked if the retailers could sit in on our meeting. We were absolutely on board – what an opportunity to get immediate feedback from the people who make the final decisions. It turned into a great session, two hours of presentation, analysis, questions and answers while we all swilled wine and gobbled handfuls of Chex mix. You can’t pay for that kind of education. If I had my druthers it would be an annual event (well, as long as it’s the last meeting of the day). 

What’s Next? is always the question in this business, but it seems to have taken on a new urgency as of late. If you take away most of what dominates in the market today – signs with words, chalkboard, Duck Dynasty, various redneck approaches, camo, woodland creatures – there’s not much of anything left. It’s a great big hole that everybody would like to fill – a genuine huge opportunity for creatives if they can find something fresh and new for the market. What it will be is anybody’s guess at this point, but if you think you know, please call me ASAP, let’s talk…

You Are Not Going to Make It in Art Licensing

If you follow any of the social groups organized around art licensing for very long you will notice a pattern that emerges: new artists regularly log on full of hope and excitement, ready to chronicle the launch of their career in this newly discovered field of art licensing. Questions are asked and answered, loads of information assimilated, art is sent out and some attend or exhibit at a show or two. Occasionally there is an announcement of a first license but often not, and eventually after a frustrating year or two of banging on the doors the majority fade away.
Licensing your art is hard.
It takes a while to reach this conclusion, but once you finally get there it’s a shorter leap to another one that can give clarity to your endeavors: financially successful licensed artists are the exception, not the rule. And by definition, most people cannot be the exception. You are likely to look back at your path into licensing and think “this has been a huge amount of work to get to this point and it’s not getting any easier, I still have to do all the same things to succeed.” And there you will have it, that reality juncture where you need to decide if you want to keep doing these “same things” for years to come – because that is how the business works – or, do you decide that you have fought the brave fight but it’s time to bid adieu and ride off in search of greener pastures? Problem is – both decisions are valid.
Art licensing today is an industry in search of a workable model. The scramble is on – agents and artists who used to make their money by licensing art are now finding ways to collect from (mostly newbie) artists in ways that run the gamut from coaching to holding contests. Some agencies are accumulating artists, hoping that more people earning less money can make up for the reduced sku counts and short market runs. Branding agencies are taking on artists and art agencies are promoting brands, and both are consulting for manufacturers who are buying art worldwide and licensing art only when they have to. It’s a wild time in the biz.
You Are Not Going to Make It in Art Licensing.
Does that make you angry? The world has always told you to follow your passion, and you’ve decided licensing your art is your passion and now some bald-headed jerk is telling you it won’t work?
First, passion is overrated. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say its relation to your career is widely misunderstood. Ours was the first generation to believe that what you enjoy doing was the most important factor in choosing a career. “Do what you love and the money will follow” seems like great advice – right up until you have to go get a job so you can eat. Cal Newton, in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You (yes, the Steve Martin quote) talks about the difference between the “craftsman mindset”, where you focus on what value you bring to your job, and the “passion mindset” where you focus on what your job does for you. It’s interesting to note that those craftsmen types are much happier, more successful, and eventually, as they build valuable skills, actually end up being more passionate about their careers.  According to their research, the real passion comes AFTER you have put in the hard work to become excellent at doing something valuable, not before. It’s also important to note that most new businesses fail, not due to a lack of passion but instead a lack of customers. Reality is mostly unimpressed by how passionate you are.
The point is: It’s a mistake to think passion can substitute for competence.
Over ninety-eight percent of the books submitted to publishers are rejected. Three out of four Broadway productions never make a profit and close. Ninety-seven percent of patents filed never make enough money to cover the cost of filing. You know all those creators were passionate about their projects. We have no way to know how many millions (seriously, millions) of designs are created around the world for licensing but it’s a safe bet that the submission rejection rate is similar to the above. There are thousands of artists in this country alone, millions worldwide, all looking for someone to give them a break. And what does it take to get that break in art licensing? Try these:
You have to BE somebody, as in star power or have a well established platform; or
You have to be BETTER than everybody else; or
You have to be DIFFERENT than everybody else.

Artists trying to break into licensing tend to work on learning more, and hopefully some on getting better, but I think mostly they need to work on being different. A friend said a while back when discussing a business setback “I’m not a look-back kind of guy”, and for me that sums up how to approach monetizing our work. Licensed product is a thriving, dynamic industry driven by millions of customers paying out billions of dollars for items they want to own, so there is no shortage of opportunity for innovative design. There are plenty of people in art licensing who are still fighting a rear-guard action, trying to squeeze the last nickel out of how this used to work. You can try that too, but of course remember it no longer works for them. Or you can look forward and get excited about what will be. Study how start-ups work, learn about marketing in a digital age, read books on innovation, sign up for smart business newsletters and apply that information to your career, follow and read Seth Godin, James Altucher, David Aaker, Steve Blank, Danielle LaPorte, Stephen Key and a hundred others who can feed your mind and fire your soul. Tune out the elegiac laments and flood the market with your ideas, get them in front of people, test and measure, and when they don’t work move on to new ones. When they DO work move quickly to place them across the market, try various iterations and refreshes until they don’t work anymore – for surely that day will come – then be ready to move forward with a fresh idea. Become a dynamo and give off sparks.
Go back and read that headline again. Does it still make you angry?
Good. What are you going to do about it?