Monday, December 10, 2012

Vision, Passion, and Collaboration in Art Licensing: A Special Interview with Anne McFarland Brown, Director of Product Development for Magnet Works, Ltd. (Part II)

We are thrilled to continue our collaborative editorial with Anne McFarland Brown, Director of Product Development at Magnet Works, Ltd. In this chapter, we discuss passion, vision, and collaboration - in fact, the motto of our own art is been exactly that: "Partnering to make the World a Better Place through Art." In this interview, Anne has inspired us even more about what that really means.

The Artist - Manufacturer Partnership

TMFMA: Anne, one thing that would be interesting to uncover is how you like to work with artists; how do you find and scout for talent, what does your most productive relationship with artists look like, how does it work best?

AB - That's a big question. So, to begin, I look everywhere for artists - from social media to blogs to the general internet to art fairs to other avenues - in short, any kind of opportunity that I can put out there to communicate that we are open to ideas, concepts, and art. It's not just artwork or a portfolio, but truly partnering with an artist on a concept. For example, with our traditional core products it can be one of two situations - an artist with a great portfolio that we can choose artwork from, or perhaps we have a subject matter that we're looking for in a particular hand or rendering and we'll work with an artist to sketch something out.

TMFMA: So what is it that you've found are key characteristics or elements that make for a great partnership with an artist?

Anne McFarland Brown
AB - It's really like any relationship. You have to have great communication, a little bit of humor, honesty, truthfulness, and lots of trust. It's an honor for me to take an artist's portfolio or vision into a product and so I hope that artists and designers trust companies like myself and Magnet Works to make certain that we treat their visions with respect.

TMFMA: In your experience, what are some of the things that detract from building a good working partnership?

AB - I try not to get to that point; I think time commitment is really key. I really try to be clear about the calendar and the schedule to make sure an artist hasn't overcommitted with other people. Especially when you go to places like Surtex, for example, so many artists will come home with a lot of contacts and a lot of projects coming their way, and I'll say, "OK, what do your next few months look like," and they'll of course answer, "no problem, I'll be able to fit you in." The bottom line, though, is that you really need to make sure they have a commitment to this category and if they don't, then that's the first warning sign that it's not a good fit right now. It doesn't mean that it couldn't be a good fit long term, it just may be that at this moment it's not a good time. 

When it does come to a point where an artist or designer isn't comfortable with the approach that we took on a product or we're running out of time, we certainly want to make sure that that's addressed. If we can't get to a place where we're comfortable, then you have to drop the product and you look at the ramifications of that - which unfortunately is sales driven; it's one less product that you get to sell.

So we sit down with the artist and talk about the pros and cons of that, but it's our job as developers to ensure that the creative mind behind the design is pleased as well as making sure that the product is salable and commercially viable, and it's my responsibility to make sure that it's manufactured well with the right materials. Sometimes I'll have to simplify the idea of an artist to save cost and make sure that a product hits a reasonable wholesale price point. It all boils down to communication, though. In the beginning, if the artist and the developer have a mutual understanding, it's pretty smooth sailing.

Importance of Integrity and Trust

TMFMA: Following on to what you said earlier about the online world, do you look at websites, do you look at places like Etsy shops, blogs, where exactly do you look and what do you generally look for?

AB - I think there's two things that go on with that. I feel like I'm always on Etsy or Pinterest or a blog - there are a number of blogs that I follow, for two reasons. One, I'm constantly looking for trends in the marketplace, whether it's a theme or color palette, a story, or something that we can bring in to collaborate with an artist on. Second, I'll go onto an artist's page or their blog and find out if they have a certain hand that we might be interested in. It used to be that I subscribed to pretty much every home magazine known to man, but now it's just so easy to get online and find information.

I would definitely encourage artists to be knowledgable about social media and how it can jumpstart their career. I worked a lot with artists from Etsy at my previous position and found a number of artists there. It was great, as they were people who had a passion for one-of-a-kind products but who also had a desire to reach a larger audience. It's exciting to work with someone who has that desire and find out what their long-term vision is, and partner with them to achieve it. Luckily, I also get to do that here at Magnet Works, too.

TMFMA: So on a site like Etsy, would you look for different product ideas, since it has grown into such a large community?

AB - It's hard, because you do have to walk a fine line around potential infringement of ideas. Is that something they've created that is unique and special to them? If so, you really have to be hands-off around the product idea and instead approach them about licensing it. If it's something that is an everyday object then it's more about licensing their art and design rather than the product idea itself. We are very, very conscious of that, extremely so, perhaps sometimes even to a fault, but we'd rather be on the safe side of that line.

I've had some artist friends who have been compromised in that way. When you have someone close to you that that's happened to, you're just so much more aware of the impact and consequences of how you're being influenced. So it's just really important to all of us here that we not cross that line. If I'm ever on Etsy or any shop like that, it's usually to find trends. Oftentimes, it may be something like owls or crows or ruffles - an icon or detail or movement that might influence a decision we make on a product but now be taking a specific idea and recreating it our way.

Importance of Purpose in the Relationship

TMFMA: Your integrity in this is very reassuring; there seems to be a certain caveat within the industry, that manufacturers are will try to take advantage of artists. One of the things we've been hoping to establish in this blog is that licensing is a potentially very fun and beautiful community and positive way to pursue commercial art and we personally believe in that very much.

AB - It's so interesting that you just said that, as I just came from a marketing meeting and when we were creating Studio M - before we even knew what it was - we kept circling around our "why" - our main purpose and goal. I don't know if you've seen the TED talks, but there's a talk by Simon Sinek who gives a talk about why we do what we do, rather than the what or how. I was introduced to it by someone in my former company and it has stayed with me.

I have a personal "why" as well as that each company has a "why" and when I first came to interview with the Todds (the owners of Magnet Works) we had this conversation - I said that I was in a pretty amazing position and the last thing I wanted to do was to jump ship for an opportunity where the people don't share my "why," my purpose. And after having a fairly lengthy, almost day-long conversation, we found that we had so much in common in that way and that lifting the creative spirit is a huge part of why we come to work every day, whether it's our own creative spirit or someone else's. When it's there and it's true and it's real, it's hard to put into words but it's exactly what you just put into words about your blog - you share that same vision.

Also, one thing that I would advise artists is that sometimes, if it works, of course it's fabulous and that partnership can be very strong. On the other hand, if it doesn't work, always go back and find out why. You know, we've had some cases where we thought something was going to be a hit and instead it was kind of a miss, so we go back to see what it was that derailed it. We'll take that back to the artist and go, "next time around, we've got to deliver it this or that way." Always, always go back and review and see what goes wrong. Often, we don't do that enough as there is such pressure to keep moving forward to the next season. I've seen success stories where artists will have a few misses before they have a great success - and then it can happen big; so always go back and have that conversation with the manufacturer.

Working Rules of Thumb

TMFMA: Let's say you were engaging with an artist and it is one of their first licensing deals, what would be a good rule of thumb for the amount of back and forth and process steps, or a good estimation to set their expectations for how much work they're going to be involved in?

AB - First of all, I love it when I get to work with a first time artist! I can only speak for our process here at Magnet Works, though, and we value the artist's involvement; we're possibly the extreme. Where one company may say, "we'd like the high res images and we'll see you in 6 months when we're finished with the product," I prefer that we start with a get-to-know-you meeting, talk about what the vision is, the calendar and schedule, things like that and make sure they understand the commitment. Depending on what their capabilities are, whether it's just speaking to the story board or the vision board, or if they want to help create that by sending images or create it themselves.

Also, we have a blended strategy when it comes to the actual manufacturing, as we are fortunate enough to have capabilities both in China as well as here in the U.S. - so our artists are very involved. When I've been on location at the photo shoots, I've sent images of the behind-the-scenes photos to the artists just to keep them in the loop.

TMFMA: Out of curiosity, if you work with an agent rather than the artist, is the process any different?

AB - It's not much different; typically the agent will just be the initial contact and we'll coordinate the contract with them, but usually the agent will encourage us to work directly with the artist while keeping in the loop in case there is an expansion of the products we want to develop. Most agents are very supportive of this type of strategy; in fact, I haven't worked with an agent yet who wasn't OK with this approach.

TMFMA: That's fantastic - and also it's probably better if you can work directly with the artist in terms of building that relationship.

AB - Actually, my preference is to visit the artist in the early concept and idea stage. To visit their studio, to see how they live, to experience that space that we're trying to create for, just to get to know their lifestyle is helpful for me to see it and get a better idea of the big picture.

TMFMA: Do you mean you actually get on a plane and go around seeing the artist's studios?

AB - Absolutely - that's one of the best parts of my job!

TMFMA: Wow, that's the dream of a designer, to have a manufacturer that approaches the relationship in that way.

AB - It's just so helpful to sit down and collaborate, whether it's on the Magnet Works side of talking about new themes or styles or approaches for our core products or whether it's working with an artist on a Studio M collection. It's just all very relevant and an important time with the artist to establish that trust, that dialogue, that comfort level of working together. It's essentially a good-faith commitment that we're here to deliver.

TMFMA: Well, this is simply amazing - and inspiring!

AB - I would encourage anyone who has a desire to license their art to get out there and try it. I certainly think that many of my friends within the licensing community both on my side and the artist's side would say that having a small group of licensees that you form these partnerships with is often the best. Then you are really cultivating that partnership, you're building your brand; unless you're just trying to pay the bills, you have to determine what your goal is. I often tell people that it's really important to get to know the company with whom you're working, their standings in the industry, their ethics and business practices, their artists and relationships.

How They Find New Talent

TMFMA: What is your take on Surtex and shows like that?

AB - I love them, for two main reasons. A lot of times I'll see artwork beforehand, get kind of a sneak preview and I'll be surprised - especially if it's an artist I've never met before. Also, it's just the general community of people at the show. When I started going in 1997, my first experience with a show like Surtex was that the artists were pretty reluctant to share information. It didn't feel as much like a community as it does today. Now you go to Surtex and there are people running up and down the aisles helping each other with booths and sharing leads, like "if this doesn't work for you, you should check out my friend's booth over there," kind of atmosphere. It's such a different world and it's so fabulous to live in it.

TMFMA: It is true; it's a very good hearted community!

AB - Yes, absolutely. So I do like Surtex a lot; there's certainly a lot of buzz around that particular show. I'm thinking about going to some other shows I haven't been to; there are many who enjoy CHA and Quilt Com and some of those. I don't know, but I'm excited to explore some new ways of meeting people within the art and design community.

TMFMA: Thank you so much again Anne, this has been an amazing interview and it has inspired us in many ways and directions!


Beth Grove said...

That was a great interview! Her answers surprised me. I'm hoping that most product developers think like Anne does.

Thanks Alex.

Lisa M Griffin said...

Wonderful interview! Always an informative visit. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Wow! This was great! Thank you so much for bringing these types of interviews to us. I love Ms Browns enthusiasm and candor! It helps me to believe that my dreams really can come true!

Patti said...

This is really great. I love the way that she works with artists!