EN ROUTE, LAS VEGAS, NV to NEW YORK, NY; June 23, 2016—Over 26 years attending Licensing Expo, whether sitting down to interview people or walking the aisles, I always get variations of the same question (especially from exhibitors who rarely get to leave their booths): “What are you seeing on the floor?” “What’s new?” “What’s hot?”
The truth is, when you’re at the show, the elaborate exhibits, the characters walking around, the noise, the constant visual bombardment make it difficult to process what you’re experiencing beyond realizing that the longest line at the show was to have your picture taken with Grumpy Cat (except for those of us allergic).
So to all who asked me that question this year, while I was in my tradeshow stupor, and to those just wondering, 35,000 feet on the way home offers the needed distance to pull some thoughts together.
The key theme for me: Sustainability has dual meanings. One is environmental, which is subject for another time. The other is about sustaining the life of a property in a digital age. I’m going to focus on the entertainment/character/gaming worlds here, but that subject is top of mind for every brand, fashion, sports, art, and other licensor, manufacturer, agent, and other player as well.
Traditional media still count, certainly to companies rooted in it, but the fact is many of the digital content producers don’t yet understand the importance of multiple platforms, including the traditional ones.
“Linear still has the reach and consistency you need” to support a licensing program, Cartoon Network’s Pete Yoder told me. “But we also know mom hands off [he moves his smart phone from one hand to the other] to the kids.” Three key changes in the digital age:
- “We’re developing content specific to each digital medium. It’s based on the same IP but we’re not just re-editing 11-minute programs to 90-seconds.”
- “We’re ordering the number of episodes we need by medium from the beginning.”
- “Years ago you needed 6 months to a year after a program was a hit to get a licensing program underway. Now the question is, ‘When are you launching the first access to the brand’” via any medium.
At Activision, the “traditional” medium is games, and that — just as obviously as TV is for Cartoon Network — continues to be the core. But the news at Activision is a Netflix commitment to two seasons of a Skylanders Academy series. “Our audience is 6-12, with a real sweet spot of 6-9,” the company’s Ashley Maidy noted. A linear program, for her, has the potential to “bring new kids in — younger kids whose older siblings know the game, as well as others who just haven’t been exposed to it at all. . . .It’s a marriage of digital product and multiple platforms.”
The transformation of Skylander across platforms has proven easier than for Call of Duty, but a film is in the works for that, as well.
Activision’s challenges — and a common refrain at many companies: “We still have to educate buyers and retailers who are tradition-bound that our customers aren’t watching TV. And with no ratings for Netflix, how do you measure success?” [Aside: One of the most promising areas to Activision founder Bobby Kotick, Maidy says, is eSports, which Kotick believes — and Activision will be playing an ever-greater role to accomplish — could be as big as the NFL in five years. Why not think big?]
Both Yoder and Maidy agreed with me that even two years ago if someone had offered them Netflix as an outlet for a series they would have turned up their noses. Not anymore.
That said, hyperbole from the digital world doesn’t really help on the measurement count, in part because it feels as though (not just at Licensing Expo, but in the “wider world”) that the digirati don’t really understand what’s important to know. They can measure all sorts of things, but those numbers don’t necessarily translate to something the IP, ad, or licensing worlds can use.
Consider Paladin Software’s James Creach, speaking as part of the Digital Licensing Summit program at the Expo, who observed that “the Super Bowl is watched by 112 million people but 1 billion people are active on social media in a month.” Well, an event watched simultaneously by 112 million people — roughly one in three Americans — is a very different story than a billion people spread across almost as many messages of all sorts. The latter isn’t unimportant, but the comparison does no favors in selling the medium.
I didn’t get to speak with anyone from Youtube, but their booth looked like a lost opportunity. Clearly a major player as an outlet for new IP as well as for creating new channels for existing programming, the company had a huge space. But from the outside all one saw was a small sign with some of the properties named. No effort to educate what the properties are, where Youtube fits in, how it translates into consumer products or even just to pique interest. I don’t think I’m alone among show attendees (OK, of a certain age — but younger as well) in having heard of only a very few of the properties named.
I’ll get off my soapbox in a moment. But coming from the print publishing world, one of the things I’ve watch many “digital-only” publishers discover is that at this point in time, to satisfy advertisers, they still need print. Similarly, digital video celebrities or others will find it difficult to sustain their fame or develop long-term careers without multiple platforms — and I don’t mean just multiple social media. Just as traditional media have been forced to embrace new media, so new media will need to embrace the old. Tyler Oakley, who is part of the Dreamworks/Awesomeness stable, gets it: he’s out there touring with a live show, there’s a documentary, AND he keeps up his video and social media output. Rock and roll, watch out. [Commented one music merchandiser: “We survived superheroes and Star Wars. Music is trending up.”]
Most trenchant observation by a newcomer to licensing at the show, though: John Haugh, the 3-months new CEO and President of Iconix, at a reception for Peanuts licensees: “I know many of you would like a Peanuts movie every year. We would too, but nobody does a movie every year, not even Star Wars. And I want to remind you that many of you have done very well with Peanuts for 50 years before there ever was a movie!” Talk about sustainability!
“They call themselves ‘creators,’ we call them ‘influencers,’” says Dreamworks/AwesomenessTV’s Jim Fielding. Dreamworks owns Awesomeness, which is a marketing engine for young (often very young) makers of YouTube videos. There is also an Awesomeness social media community for the tweens and teens that marketing engine targets.
Fielding, who spent more than a decade with Disney Stores, including four years as President, and then served as CEO of Claire’s, knows his audience — and old media types like me are decidedly not in his sights. Fielding’s mission: “Connectivity and commerce,” he says — to help those “creators” establish strong direct relationships with consumers as well as a strong retail presence.
From a viewer perspective, Awesomeness is an umbrella for YouTube channels that cater to these demographic groups. The nomenclature is awkward, though: Awesomeness refers to its social media offering as a network while it prompts those coming to its website to “Watch our channel.” But the “channel” is an aggregation of 91,000+ existing YouTube channels as well as those generated specifically by Awesomeness. And again, admittedly, I’m not the target, but I find the AwesomenessTV interface confusing for trying to find a specific creator’s work unless they happen to be featured. (Much easier to get there directly through YouTube.)
Semantics and my own navigation challenges aside, the channel signs creators with existing YouTube followings and uses its marketing expertise to propel them to higher levels of viewership. Licensing can become part of the package — that’s part of where Fielding figures in — though as in other entertainment realms, the creators often retain those rights for themselves, or their managers/agents/parents/lawyers or other handlers.
Still, the power of that umbrella is considerable. “Discovery might have 300,000 viewers for a very successful video,” Fielding told me at Licensing Expo in Las Vegas last month. “We put a video up yesterday that had 1.5 million views in three hours.” Awesomeness adds 24-32 “pieces of content per week, plus longform” videos. Awesomeness also creates videos for brands looking to engage its audience of tweens and teens.
While many see the shelf-life of these videos as extremely limited, Fielding points out that search can bring viewers back to old episodes. He cites as an example “Life So Rad,” a series created for retailer Kohl’s. When the third season went up, viewers sought out the first two seasons, which they found even though those older shows were no longer highlighted on the site.
That can be a blessing and a curse, since the fashions a Kohl’s might be featuring in a season one episode probably don’t exist by season two, let alone season three. Still, it signals that much sought after level of engagement.
Among the more successful of Awesomeness’s stars are:
- Amanda Steele, who started posting YouTube videos when she was 10 and is now 16. Her subjects: beauty and fashion.
- Ingrid Nilson, who has been making videos for seven years, was a judge on Project Runway, and has three million YouTube subscribers and at 26 is earning 6-7-figure endorsement and other marketing fees.
- Tyler Oakley, a humorist, author, and gay rights advocate who used his social media celebrity to raise $1 million on his birthday for The Trevor Project, an L.A. non-profit that provides a safe haven for LGBT and questioning youth in times of crisis. On the more “commercial” side, he stages pajama parties on college campuses, where $250 VIP tickets include meet ups.
The company will support a new “creator” by backing production of 6-12 episodes. “If there’s the right engagement we’ll do more,” Fielding said.
Fielding sees the biggest threat to these celebrities’ longevity in how long they will be willing to produce two to three videos a week. “Most of them started by making selfies,” he notes. The more visibility they get, he adds, the more sophisticated the production values get and the more time it takes to produce even 2-3 minute clips.
The bottom line, says Fielding: “The fans will tell us when [the Awesomeness creators/influencers] aren’t relevant.”
Contact: Jim Fielding, firstname.lastname@example.org.