For the third week in a row, I have been ‘out of office’; this time in Vegas for Licensing Expo. The eight hour time difference here in Nevada results in most Brits waking bright and early (i.e. any time from the middle of the night onwards), but for once sleep deprivation has its compensations; chiefly in giving you the opportunity to respond to the bulk of your daily email build-up before starting work at the show. It’s probably best to avoid looking at your emails if you’re still up at midnight, or you’re compelled to start the cycle all over again. Basically, whenever you are awake here, there is work to be done.
Licensing Expo attracts licensees and retailers from across the globe, although inevitably proceedings retain a distinctly American flavour. Whether it’s the stands on the show floor or the presentations given by licensing companies, understated rarely comes into the equation; big, brash and bold has always been the name of the game at Licensing Expo. Even when retail is challenging – and make no mistake, it’s not just the UK which is going through a turbulent phase – maintaining a positive front remains essential. Confidence is a preference to the habitual voyeur of what is known as ‘licensing life’…
There are, though, subtle signs which reflect the prevailing retail conditions; according to those who took in all the licensor presentations, literally everyone is ‘unlocking the vault’; essentially, we’re all going back to the future – specifically the 80s and 90s. So many brands are making a comeback that I’m getting flashbacks to the early part of my career in toys and licensing. Some licensees have interpreted this trend as a sign that certain licensors have “nothing new” and are taking a risk-averse approach, but you can certainly see the logic in the strategy. The past is filled with creative riches and some of them are ripe for rediscovery. It’s just a case of separating the ones which merit reinvention from the ones which perhaps should have remained a fond memory.
Nickelodeon took this year’s showcase presentations up a notch or three with an appearance by Snoop Dogg: I think it’s fair to say that a bunch of ‘suits’ is not exactly Snoop’s regular crowd, but fair play, he certainly gave it his all. There was also a performance by a very talented 14 year-old Mexican social media star Bala, who joins Jo Jo Siwa, Ryan’s World and Baby Shark in Nickelodeon’s roster; in this brave new world, hot properties are clearly no longer just coming from TV shows and movies. But with a new Top Gun movie coming next summer and the return of 90s favourite Blue’s Clues (which looks extremely strong), Nickelodeon is also making the most of its heritage.
There have been plenty of new partnerships announced during the show; amongst those of most interest to the toy community, Just Play and VTech have signed global deals on the aforementioned Blue’s Clues; Hasbro will be partnering with Wicked Cool Toys to bring back Micro Machines; Basic Fun has secured the rights for the Tonka brand, while Funrise has tied up a global deal with Caterpillar; Lego is on board for next year’s Minions movie; Alpha Toys has signed both Subway Surfers and Chuggington; Playmobil will be introducing a Scooby Doo range, with a new movie coming next May; Mattel will be producing a range of Hello Kitty toys, while Jazwares will be producing a line of musical toys based on Vivo, a movie featuring brand new songs written by the legendary Lin-Manuel Miranda. If Sony can get him to perform at next year’s showcase, that will be quite a coup.
Jazwares also came up trumps at the International Licensing Awards, winning one of five awards for the Fortnite brand. The other toy brand winners were Harry Potter and L.O.L. Surprise! All three properties enjoyed a phenomenal year and, having seen some of the new developments for these brands, you certainly wouldn’t bet against them having another strong year.
Gossip has been relatively thin on the ground, save for the sad demise of licensed greeting card company Gemma. I am not sure what went wrong there, but it seemed to come as quite a shock to people out here. I also have it on good authority that Anna Chapman has parted company with Disney. Anna is very well thought of within the toy licensee community, so hopefully she’ll find a new opportunity soon.
I’m delighted that after some polite grumbling, we Brits appear to have persuaded the Americans to curtail their use of the word ‘awesome’, while ‘zeitgeist’ has also been practically eradicated. Progress indeed. ‘Always on’ has replaced the ubiquitous ‘365’, while no-one knows what the phrase ‘impressions’ really means anymore (especially when the number of impressions quoted seems to exceed the number of kids on the planet). Oh, and congratulations to CBS for having phone chargers at all their meeting tables; I predict this will become widespread in years to come. It certainly encourages people to linger just that little bit longer, in the hope of resuscitating a mobile languishing in the red zone…
Away from the Vegas bubble, a quick reminder that the Toy Trust’s Big Challenge takes place this weekend; if you haven’t yet found someone to sponsor, I’m sure we all know someone taking part. I just hope any participants working out here have been suitably abstemious and keeping up their rigorous training regimes.
Argos has already unveiled predictions for its top selling toys for Christmas, a list which highlights the appeal of strong innovation and bears out the strength of those licences that are currently courting favour. You can read the full list here.
Finally, international shows sometimes remind us that not everyone is completely au fait with the UK retail market. Yesterday I met a very nice American exhibitor who told me that she was due to see another UK visitor shortly after me. “Berry something…is it Sus – Berry? Or maybe Sains- Berry?” she asked. “Are they a good company for me to talk to?” I reassured her that it was certainly worth her while…