Aard at Work: Aardman Animation talks live events, retail and giant sheep

At the Aardman Animations headquarters on Gas Ferry Lane in Bristol, the agenda of the day is tracking down the Tupperware box filled with Wallace’s body parts.

The number of which, we can tell you, is too many to count within the momentary glimpse we are given, but suffice to say it was akin to staring into Dante’s Inferno, had it been dreamed up by Open All Hours’ Granville.

The point being, that even at its most horrifying – and peering over a lunch box brimming with limbs adorned in Wallace’s classic knitted pullover can certainly be considered thusly – Aardman captures the eccentricity of Britain’s good old-fashioned need for twee in almost everything it does.

The sight is one of many pit stops we are treated to on our tour of the Aardman studio, comprised of a look behind the scenes of the filming of the latest series of Morph ready to hit Sky this year, an upcoming ad campaign for a Canadian water company and a peek into the office space of the legendary Nick Park, the man behind the classic look that Aardman is so well known for the world over.

As we are guided through its corridors it is evident that we are far from the first to be walked through the annals of Aardman history. Our guide is quick to point out that, as we ascend the wooden steps towards the hub of Aardman activity, we follow the likes of Colin Firth and Sir Ian McKellen, who even nabbed a spot on the cari- cature-filled tea towel hanging on the company’s cafeteria wall. It was unlikely the courtesy would be extended to ToyNews, but it didn’t stop us asking.     

Within the headquarters’ reception area stands a ten foot Shaun the Sheep that, having recently returned home from its stint at Glastonbury, demonstrates the cross-generational appeal that all of Aardman’s IP enjoys today. In fact, since his debut in the 1995 Wallace and Gromit feature, A Close Shave, Shaun the Sheep has quickly become the poster boy for the studio’s subsequent move into the pre-school space with an animated Shaun the Sheep TV series, a 2015 Shaun the Sheep movie and a new cinematic release planned for next year.

Sometimes with the big players, you need to fight for your space, so we are really pleased that Sinco is going out there and pushing. Sally Hunter has been in the business for years, so it is good to have that pedigree of people behind Shaun and behind the toy line.

Rob Goodchild, Aardman

In fact, it is with the 2019 Shaun the Sheep movie sequel now confirmed that the company’s in-house licensing division is ready to focus on reigniting the consumer product roll-out for the character here in the UK, kicking off in the toy space.

“Now that we have the movie confirmed for 2019, we are starting to build the UK programme; we have Igloo Books on board as our publishing partner and we have just signed Sinco Toys as the master toy partner,” Rob Goodchild, head of licensing at Aardman Animations tells ToyNews.

With his back to the window, Goodchild talks to us in the comfort of his consumer product office space on the top floor of the studio’s headquarters. The eyes of ‘ten foot Shaun’ are visibly peering through the glass and over his shoulder. For some, the image could be rather disconcerting but luckily ToyNews is made of more mettle than that.

“Licensing has been tough in the UK this last year,” continues Goodchild. “There is a lot of competition out there and we have probably taken a fairly niche approach to our activity. Having signed with Sinco Toys is a bit of a ramp up in that respect.

“This partnership was a measured approach to getting back into the toy game. Sinco is a new toy firm, but the company has been around for a long time; they have a lot of distribution and a lot of ambition and that’s what we like.”

 For Goodchild, finding the right toy partner to be leading Shaun’s charge back into the toy space is about finding the right balance with someone who has both clout in the market and resources to put behind the toy push, but also time to dedicate to getting the IP in front of the retailers.

“You want to feel important to a licensee,” continues Goodchild. “Sometimes with the big players, you need to fight for your space, so we are really pleased that Sinco is going out there and pushing. Sally Hunter has been in the business for years, so it is good to have that pedigree of people behind Shaun and behind the toy line.”

According to Goodchild, Sinco is now pitching the line to retailers for 2018’s soft launch, “just to get some new product into the market.”

“Then, for 2019, is when they will really start ramping up for the movie. This is when you will be looking at figurines, play- sets, games and puzzles, arts and crafts and a full master toy collection in spring/ summer or autumn/winter. That will be supported with advertising across all media – TV levels of support – placed within however the world is turning at that point.”

Get him talking about toys and Good- child’s excitement is palpable. This is a man with a strong background in the market, having worked a two-year stint at Smoby, after all.

“It’s nice to be back, banging on those doors and working on a really strong product plan and going out and pitching to retailers and proving to them that we can make people buy Shaun the Sheep product. Hopefully, everything we are doing, not just with the movie but the general brand development – and we have some really strong promotions coming through – will help us then prove to retailers that there is a place on their shelves for Shaun.”

While Goodchild is the first to admit that the UK market has been a tough one to negotiate in licensing terms this past year, on a global level, the company is rocketing, having posted one of its strongest years to date over the course of 2017, fuelled by demand for Shaun the Sheep across Japan, China and Germany.

“Aardman has always been a global player,” he explains. “From the early 2000s with Wallace and Gromit, Japan has always been a good territory for us and we have always had an international outlook in the activities we have implemented. We work at the UK market, and even though we are a British brand, we take the British credentials and the British cultural credentials behind it, meaning that we work very well in these global markets.”

It goes somewhat without saying that one of the biggest hurdles facing not just Aardman but IP owners in general within the UK market is the current lay of the land within the retail sector, underpinned by the decline of some of the biggest brick and mortar names here on home soil.

“Retail is a moving feast, especially when you see the decline of retailers like Toys R Us,” says Goodchild. “But that’s where you see the growth on the ecommerce side. But as well as this shift, you start to look at something like our live events output, all of which creates new retail opportunity.

“For us, we look at partners in the more niche areas, farm shops for instance. There are 200 to 300 farm shops up and down the country that people flock to every Sunday, and they are full of shops and gifts. The good part is, the pricing is not supermarket pricing, so while it is good to be in the mainstream retailers, Tesco or Argos for example, there is a segmenting in the market and it is now about finding the right partners for those right niches.

Has Aardman been struck by the sorry demise of one-time toy giant, Toys R Us?

Goodchild is quick to field: “We are affected by the demise of Toys R Us in an adverse way, it’s one less retailer for us to work with. The knock-on effect here is that the toy industry doesn’t decline, but with one less retailer in the fold, shelf space becomes even more precious, and the concentration of buying power tends to favour the big boys even more.

“It’s why for us, finding those niche areas is key to our retail strategy, which again, is why we are excited to be partnering with someone like Sinco Toys in the lead up to 2019’s Shaun the Sheep movie as that is a focus for us together.”

It’s with a final gulp of tea and an audible crunch of an Aard boiled sweet (Aardman’s very own branded treats) that we pose
the question about the company’s dental plan and the interview draws to a close.

It’s a short train journey back to London where ToyNews now awaits more details of the Shaun the Sheep sequel movie to be released. Oh, and an invite to submit a portrait for the Aardman’s tea towel of fame.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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