Lessons from the Woods

Which of these scenarios sounds more appealing to you:
A close knit but wacky family living in the woods who love nature and hunting and share their goofy hijinks with the world;
An intolerant, bigoted group of extremely wealthy people who have amassed many thousands of acres which they use as a private game farm where they can enthusiastically slaughter animals because God gave them the right to do so?
It doesn’t take long to figure out which of those images an entertainment company would prefer (and I can only hope most people would too… which is of course what worries them).
The current hoopla over the suspension of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson mostly stems from the fact that Duck Dynasty, as most people know it, doesn’t really exist. It’s a manufactured product. And the company that owns that product has taken action against an employee who acted contrary to the interests of the product owners by making public statements that they believe will tarnish the image.
The boys prior to the show
When art meets commerce the rules change. And when you are compensated for the use of your art you take on certain responsibilities in exchange for that compensation. It isn’t about what’s fair, nor is it an infringement of anyone’s rights because you can always refuse to participate (as in “no, you can’t replace my turtle with a walrus”) – but if you decide to take the money you need to acknowledge what comes along with it. 
As the saying goes “The devil always arrives carrying cash”.

TV Time

We always have pads of paper and pen sitting on the coffee table (and every counter, nightstand, desk and more) and they get a lot of use in our house. One thing I can never resist is writing down memorable lines from whatever we happen to be watching on the tube (that’s the beauty of On Demand, you can rerun it a few times). Here, in no particular order, are a few that have some relationship to our creative world…
“It turns into ‘just say your lines and then get off the stage’. It’s kinda sad.” – Dustin Hoffman on the reality of art as a business
“I didn’t have what they needed today, but I’m not done by any means.” – a rejected contestant on The Voice
“If you’re looking where everybody else is looking then you’re looking in the wrong place.” – Mark Cuban on Shark Tank
“She wants to know all the secrets in the How To Be Successful handbook, but sadly that book does not exist.” – Adam Levine on The Voice
“They are not right. They are exactly as I wanted them, but they’re not… it.” – Peggy on Mad Men about some design ideas
“The old business models are irrelevant. You need to find your place in this new market.” – a record producer on the series Nashville
“It’s not OK to just assume that everybody knows the right thing to do, because they don’t.” – from a CBS Good Morning story on internet plagiarism
“She is fitting into a pair of shoes that people have seen worn before.” – Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20) on The Voice about lack of originality
“Fashion will always be about balancing art and commerce.”
– Michael Kors on Project Runway
“If ten people insist you’re a horse, it’s time to buy a saddle.”
– Jack Rosenblum
“No deal is always better than a bad deal.” – Mark Cuban on Shark Tank
“I had no way of knowing that there was madness in what I was doing.” – Sidney Poitier on becoming an actor without any experience
“Luck is only important as far as getting the chance to sell yourself at the right moment. After that, you’ve got to have talent and know how to use it.” – what Frank Sinatra said about luck
“You’ve got to look at how our business is now – you need to get visibility to make it and that’s really hard to come by.”  – from The Voice
“Whenever you feel you are pushing it (the design) into a place it doesn’t want to be, then pull back.”  -Tim Gund on pushing the envelope (Project Runway)
“There are two kinds of products – those that are revolutionary, and those that are like other things out there.” – Lori Greiner on Shark Tank
“I didn’t make the rules, I just know them.” – a music producer on Chasing Nashville about the importance of image
“Everybody who walks into the Shark Tank is fully committed – but that’s not enough by itself.” – Mark Cuban
“Creative is not a science. It’s about design AND telling stories.” 
– from The Pitch 
Now, who said there’s never anything good on television?

Hey, Remember Me?

There have been some (shocking but actually not surprising) statistics floating around the net lately, reportedly from the National Sales Executive Association, that illustrate how important follow-up skills are to sales success:

48% of sales people never follow up with a prospect
25% of sales people make a second contact and stop
12% of sales people only make three contacts and stop
Only 10% of sales people make more than three contacts
2% of sales are made on the first contact
3% of sales are made on the second contact
5% of sales are made on the third contact
10% of sales are made on the fourth contact
80% of sales are made on the fifth to twelfth contact

These statistics don’t mesh very well with the fantasy of being discovered, an overnight success, or taking the industry by storm, because that’s exactly what those are – fantasies. 

Why do we care? Because success in art licensing requires selling, and successful selling requires action – targeted, repeated action that not only delivers your designs to the right people over and over again, but also allows you the opportunity to gather information at the same time. (Think: keep asking questions…). Many artists become frozen in place trying to learn everything about the industry, and while learning as much as possible can be part of a great plan it works best when coupled with activity. We are in a learn-on-the-fly business in no small part because what you are learning will change as the business evolves – there are few hard and fast rules left anymore for those making a living as a creative.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of relationship selling, or RS. One of my favorite commandments of RS is “the product is not the product”, meaning the relationship has to build first and THAT is the product you are working on. People buy from people they like and trust, and a sale is usually the outcome of building a relationship over time – hence the many contacts and the necessity of following up. Your clients have many suppliers to choose from and many variations of a theme will often work for them – but there is only one production slot. Artists say they don’t compete with each other because the art is all unique, but that can be a mistake because you ARE competing for every opportunity to place a design. You want to be the person they think of when they need to fill that spot, and one good way to stay top of mind is to keep working your follow up.

It’s Not Only What Will It Be, But Where Did It Come From?

There has been some recent hoopla on the net regarding an artist who went public about several of her designs being copied (and it seems like they were) by a well known gift supplier. Any number of bloggers have posted their admiration and support for her bravery, and some big retailers actually cut ties with the gift supplier because of it. But there is a fly in the ointment – an art critic matched up the designs to several photographs widely available on the net, and they do match. Perfectly. And now people are researching her past work and matching some of that up to other photos…oops…

I am both amused and dismayed that so many artists who quickly ripped into the manufacturer have gone silent now that it has been revealed that the artist’s (un) original designs were traced, apparently without permission or attribution, from other people’s photographs. The infringing manufacturer’s position is indefensible, no question there – but so is that of an artist tracing copyrighted work and calling it their own. Nobody should get a pass here. And what of those other licensees with legitimate licensing agreements that are now looking at their product lines as potential infringements (against various photographers) and are waiting for the other shoe to drop? If it does those costs could be catastrophic.

There is no future in maintaining a “poor artists against the mean manufacturers” attitude, it will very quickly poison your relationships and ultimately your career. Here at Two Town we truly like the vast majority of the companies and people we work with and can count many good friends among them, and it seems I find myself advocating  consideration of the licensee side of things far too often because many artists automatically jump to the “manufacturers are bad” side of things. Yes, infringements do occur but the truth is you are way more likely to be ripped off by another artist than by a potential licensee.

There is a lesson to be learned here, and it’s an unpalatable one – in this biz of art and product licensing sometimes it IS all about the money, and that fact will pop up on either side of the equation. It can lead to hard knocks for sure, but you can usually duck them if you stay original, do your research, write good contracts and use your smarts.

Snippets – Dallas Meets Atlanta

One of the great things about the gift markets is that you can interact with a wider variety of people than you will see at Surtex or Licensing. The mix of owners, reps, art and licensing directors, sales managers, retailers and our fellow artists and agents makes for some wonderfully diverse viewpoints. It also made Dallas and Atlanta ripe territory for snippet picking as you will see. It seems that while most people feel business is improving, the sting of the last few years has not gone away and “proceed with caution” is still the word of the day:
“It’s a lot of time and work to intro a new product, plus someone has to keep following it all the way through to the launch.”
– owner of a gift company
“The market is telling us something different than what we had expected on this line and you have got to listen to your market.” – about making some responsive line changes
“Do you want to make a statement or do you want to make a deal?” – an agent about difficult artists
“The shelf life of a piece of art is so much shorter. Where we used to get 4 or 5 years out of a good seller, now after one year we are looking to cycle it out of the line because sales have already dropped.” – owner of a home décor company
“Have you seen the crazies on there lately? I keep adding to the list of artists I’m never going to work with.” – an art director talking about Linked In
“The problem is they’re not asking anybody who has a qualified opinion – it’s like asking your mother over and over again “Am I pretty?” – an agent about artists evaluating other artists’ work on social media
“We have learned that our salespeople are not enthusiastic about being the first to market – they’d rather see it somewhere else first.” – an art director about fresh new concepts
“There are so many ideas coming at us now, especially with Pinterest and all that, that we couldn’t possibly do all the good ones.” – owner of a gift company
“I don’t know why they don’t have more artists mingle with the sales reps because it energizes the reps so much to meet them.” – a sales VP
“Our focus is on branded lines now, we really don’t do anything with individual designs anymore.”
– licensing exec at a big gift company explaining their new focus
“We would blow off this show if being here wasn’t a requirement to keep our (prime) location for the January show.” – an exhibitor in the Atlanta temps about the summer show
“I don’t care about recognition or awards or any of that stuff. I design for a particular market and what I care about is whether they buy it.”  – a well known licensed artist
“We don’t just want it to sell in, it needs to sell through. Selling through is what validates a product.” – sales mgr at a large gift company
“We had it priced at 11.00 wholesale but the packaging wouldn’t hang on the hook, it needed to be stronger. The redo pushed the price up to 14.00, so now it’s almost 30.00 retail and that was too much.” – about problems marketing a product
“I am so tired of seeing all these products made with horrible art and hackneyed phrases they pulled off the internet.”
– a licensing agent
“Here’s the problem: everybody and their brother has a product in this category, so it’s incredibly competitive and the margins are really thin. There is just no room to pay royalties anymore.”
– licensee explaining why they buy some shelf goods for their line
“She doesn’t seem to have anything new – what, is she on hiatus?” – art director’s remark (that you never want to hear!) about a portfolio
“I get really tired of this “we’re all sisters in this business of art licensing” thing. I am not giving you my client name just because we both have a uterus.” – a successful licensed artist
“I hate to say it, but in this business you are only as good as your last product.” – owner of a gift company
“It’s not just ceramics – everything is more expensive. We are using a lot more wood, paper and printing instead of sculpts because of the price.” – owner of a gift company
“It’s Trade Show 101 – lot’s of light and color.” – a gift show exhibitor about their bright and colorful display 
And my favorites:

“Every time a new or relatively unknown artist talks to me about developing their “brand”, marketing their “brand”, and how they’re such a unique “brand”, I just want to set myself on fire.” – an art director
“I’m taking a few moments to recover from the wind burn I just got from [a gift company] whipping thru my portfolio.”
– an artist at the Atlanta Mart

Dude, What’s Your Problem?

Answer this quickly without thinking about it: Why should someone license your art above all others?
Don’t know? If you don’t, then you can bet your clients absolutely won’t be able to figure it out. And out of all the answers that might work, “because I want my art on products” is definitely one that won’t, in fact any answer that starts with “I” is likely to be the wrong one.
Many years ago we traveled almost five hours up Florida to visit a new customer at their factory. We had set up a morning appointment so we took a motel for the night and arrived bright and early with all our portfolios ready to do some business. The art director walked into the conference room and after a little chit chat proceeded to tell us that they work with almost 200 artists already, and asked what we had that she could not get from them. We suggested that we should look through the portfolios – and she declined, ended the meeting and sent us on our way. Stunned only begins to describe what we were feeling. I can look back now and understand that she did not feel she had a problem for us to solve – they already had unlimited art to choose from. And unfortunately we missed our opportunity to ask the right questions, dig a little, open up a two-way exchange and find out what we could do to help. 
The Number One, Numero Uno, Numéro Un reason businesses fail?
They don’t solve a problem.
The usual reasons people give, such as insufficient capitalization, low sales, competition and so on are just subsets of Number One above. Success in any market is based on finding and filling a need, not on hopes, wishes or even great ideas (when looked at through the lens of our licensing biz, an idea without a method to commercialize it has little value). Look at the patent market – of the 180,000 filed each year, only 1 to 2% make it into the marketplace, and only 1 in 600 of those make any income long term. Over 97% of patents never make back the cost of filing. Why? Because they are clever, unique ideas that don’t solve anyone’s problem.   
Art Licensing is a B2B market. It is also a zero-sum game, a big one perhaps, but there is still a finite amount of opportunity. Insight is what drives success today – your ability to recognize what your clients are trying to accomplish and then launching new ideas and concepts that help them get there. This will be the engine powering your trip into art licensing. We have a steady stream of artists vying to enter into licensing with nothing more to offer than “me too” art, and it all adds to the clutter that your clients have to deal with every day–so they are just tuning out the majority of it. To get their attention you will have to show them how connecting with your vision and using your art leads to a better outcome, and the only way you can do that is by first investing the time to learn what they might need.

Let’s Talk

“All products are conversations.” –Hugh MacLeod

So if you consider your art to be a statement, then where does that leave you?

The most important driver of continuing success will not be what you have done, but rather what you are doing. Licensing art onto products is not an event, it is a process, and while your portfolio might earn you a place in the dialogue realize that is only the beginning. 
Think of it as the “art” of conversation.

The View from the Other Side

You, as an art licensor, might wake up every day thinking “Hmmm, wonder who I should contact about licensing my art today?” You can start your morning thinking about new markets and potential licensees, but, hard as this may be to believe… those potential licensees are not likely to be waking up thinking about you.

Their morning will start more like this: 

”Oh crap, Target has changed our meeting AGAIN, I will be in China that week and Bob doesn’t do well with that buyer. The factory that makes the wire handles can’t meet our ship schedule, and the new plush shipment has been confiscated by Customs because the testing paperwork wasn’t filed? Am I surrounded by idiots? What am I going to tell the retailers? Hey, I wonder if we ever got the factory to the price point we need on those ceramic pieces – better have our China coordinator check on that. If we can’t get the pricing we will need to drop them from the new release and that will leave a major hole in the line – that’s gonna suck. And I can’t believe we are having ANOTHER review meeting on the January release – we should have had that in the system two weeks ago and NOW they want to take another look at it? We are already working on Summer 2014 for God’s sakes, I DO NOT have time for this BS. What else was there… oh yeah, need the textile print proofs today, we have GOT to have those samples in house by the first. There’s something else… oh, I still need to go through that pile of art. Maybe we could use some on  the new mugs… no way I have time for that today, maybe tomorrow… or maybe Mary can do it…”

And so their day goes.

One comment we heard often at both the Dallas and Atlanta markets was that the licensees had not even looked at the art they obtained from Surtex. They were still putting the 2014 product release to bed, or final touches on the new catalog, or just hadn’t had time, and so on… but they hoped to get to it sometime soon. 

From a technical standpoint, licensing is a business model and not an industry. It is a method of commercializing your product or invention (i.e. your designs) without bringing it to market yourself. And your clients definitely do not see it as an industry, for them it is a tool to make and sell better product. Licensing is but one of a number of ways that they can source one of the components of their product. I am telling you this because, to be successful long term, it is vital that you realize how your piece fits into the puzzle. Licensees will gravitate toward those who make their life easier – whether it’s because you only send appropriate, targeted art, or your files are correctly sized, well organized and readable, or you (happily!) respond to any request within hours instead of days or weeks… it all matters. Keeping your client’s perspective in mind will help you help them, and for them, that is really what it’s all about.  


Turning Up the Heat in Dallas

It wasn’t nearly hot enough in Florida so we headed off to the Dallas Home and Gift market to see what was happening there. I’ll tell ya, there’s nothing like that midday Texas heat shimmering up off 12 lanes of freeway to make you appreciate a sea breeze. Actually it really wasn’t all that bad – the nights are still below 80 – but that will change in a few weeks…
Dallas is the kickoff of the summer show season and while it is not as big as Atlanta, the big players are all there and many debut their mid-year releases at this show. There are 2300 permanent showrooms and several times a year they set up hundreds more temporary booths on a number of floors. Mix in a lot of regional and Texas vendors (oh wait – that’s the same thing in the Republic of Texas) and you have a pretty impressive venue. The Dallas Market Center is just north of downtown and has four main buildings: the 4 story Trade Mart with about one million square feet of space, the 15 story World Trade Center (3.1 million square feet), the International Trade Plaza (440,000 square feet) and the Market Hall at 214,000 square feet. A lot of ground to cover in a few long days but we managed to pull it off.
Trade Mart entry (World Trade Center is poking up on the right)

Traffic started out a little slow on Friday morning but did build through the day, and it really ramped up for the weekend. The exhibitors we talked with had mixed opinions on how the show was going, from good to really bad, but that seems to be the case in most every show. We have not heard any final wrap-up from the exhibitors or the DMC but probably will next week in Atlanta.

Atrium of the WTC
Mid-season releases tend to be a little spotty, not everybody does them and/or not every time. They can range from a little refresh of a collection to a full blown roll out of a new line (our favorite…) however we’re happy no matter what they are. We had several nice debuts this time, here are three of them:
Ellen Krans at Burton&Burton
Life Is Country® at Big Sky Carvers/Demdaco
Ronnie Walter at Carson’s
One of our goals at every show or market is to meet new clients, and this one turned into a pretty good trip. We also managed to lay some important groundwork for Atlanta next week.
Wait – next week? But I just got home…


The pen and paper have been busy, between Housewares, Surtex and a few Atlanta leftovers a lot is being said. I only wish I could get them all, but ya just can’t stop a meeting to write down a good one, and then ya just can’t remember them all afterward, try as I may… but here are few for you:
“There are a lot of mixed signals, it’s not exactly clear where the market is going.” – a product developer/importer
“I just met with a guy who insisted we have our contract in place before I can do any presentations with  his art – that just doesn’t work for us.” – from a meeting at a well known tableware company
“One thing I’ve learned after all these years in this business is that the product misses outnumber the hits, and you just need to pick yourself up and keep on moving.” – an agent
“We switched rep groups hoping to increase sales and they fell by half – no one can explain it.” – a gift manufacturer
“So I’m looking at 30K of travel and show expense this year and wondering if spending 10K more might help – and then I’m thinking I must be nuts to be thinking that.” – an agent
“To me, someone who has a successful ecommerce presence is motivated and smart – exactly what we look for. Anyone telling you differently has another agenda or their head up their…” – an agent on the question of artists who sell product on the net
“This is really great and I am sure it will sell like crazy, but it’s just not our customer.” – a manufacturer
 “The good old days of cheap China manufacturing are gone.” – from a large gift company
“She claims to be one of the top licensing agencies, but if that’s the case why have we never heard of any of her artists?” – an agent (and always a good question…)
“It’s either a sun setting or a moon rising, I am not sure which.” – overheard in the Javits food court where a non-exhibiting agent was showing a portfolio at the next table(!)
“I like this personally but we’ve already got it covered a couple different ways.” – a manufacturer
 “Pick your poison – boutique retail or mass market – there are problems either way.” – an art director
 “It’s really tough for us out there because the key accounts are in complete control.” – an art director
I’m going to start teaching a $1000 course too… it will be called “How to Get Your Head Out of the Clouds and Do Some Art”. – an agent
“The problem is we make a presentation based on them ordering 3 products and then they only order 1. Now we don’t have enough product to fill a shipping container so we have to turn the order down, and no one is happy about that.” –a manufacturer
“You reach a point where you can see the shades come down and their eyes glaze over so you just need to stop showing them art.” – an exhibitor about showing too much
“You never know about that X-factor out there, because the product, the price, everything was right but it still didn’t work.” – a licensee explaining why a line didn’t work
“Traffic doesn’t matter, I don’t care how many people are walking in the aisles if they can’t do anything for me.” – an exhibiting agent
And my favorite one of the group:
“I don’t know if I can do it or not but I’m a pretty good ‘tryer’.” – an exhibitor