Separated by the miles between us, yet sitting face to face Zoom-style with the Wow! Stuff CEO Richard North, sustainability within the toy industry has become the major topic of conversation.
The toy and gadget entrepreneur is deep into another one of his mantras; having us picture him on his deathbed, looking back at his time upon the earth. Talk turns to the importance of leaving the planet in a better state than when we first touch down upon it, and suddenly we both find ourselves visibly moved by the sentiments. It’s a moment that really couldn’t better typify what life is like in the year 2020 if it tried.
While the events of the past eight months here in the UK have given many businesses cause to dig down and carve out a new fortitude of resilience in the face of the pandemic, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that business has also finally managed to soften some of its harder edges in equal measure.
If the last week’s five day long session of video meetings throughout the ongoing Festival of Licensing’s Brand Licensing Europe leg has highlighted anything, it’s that the humanity of industry is something to be celebrated, connections are to be cherished, and when it comes to business, it turns out, there is room for emotion.
It’s – hopefully – why Wow! Stuff’s North felt at ease enough to talk so openly about his own connection with the sustainability movement, or his newly adopted philosophy of ‘proud over profit’, or why he felt he could reach out to the eyes and ears of LinkedIn when he found himself struggling to come to terms with the implications of the pandemic at the height of the troubles in spring this year.
At a time when topics around the importance of mental health and wellbeing are finally beginning to reach mainstream conversation, it’s very much reflective of the old adage that it really is good to talk.
On the one hand it’s given us, if nothing else, a fine point of insight into the ‘groundbreaking work set to revolutionise the sustainability movement’ that Wow! Stuff is currently involved with, and on the other, it gave life to a wonderfully unifying moment for the toy industry in the formation of the Toy Aid charity initiative.
But at the crux of it all is the matter that over the course of the past year, Wow! Stuff has been keeping itself very busy indeed. Leaps forward in the sustainability drive and charity initiatives aside, this is a company that has managed to pioneer the first print at home face masks, push the envelope in pre-school innovation once more with its new Peppa Pig offering, and cement its place as a major player in the licensed toys market.
Was 2020 the year that Wow! Stuff had earmarked to achieve such a list of accomplishments? And among it all, was it Wow! Stuff’s plan to be the trailblazer in licensed products that it has now become? North would never admit it. A man of many mantras, one is that he is always reluctant to count his chickens.
“Perhaps it has been a subconscious mission,” he offers up. “You daren’t believe you could do it, in case you count your chickens before they hatch. So we don’t openly say, ‘we’re going to be this or do that’, but actually it has been true.”
He’ll admit that underneath the firm’s mission statement to work with tier one brands and bring them to life, there may have been an underlying target to become a powerful name on the licensed toy scene.
“We don’t talk about it all the time; we just feel it,” he says.
One self-driving Peppa Pig car later, a toy deal with Magic Light Pictures for The Gruffalo, a best-selling collectables range in Wow! Pods, and more pre-school licenses to come – including some major new names on the scene, the details on which ToyNews has been sworn to secrecy for now, and Wow! Stuff is becoming a very prominent player.
It’s a striking evolution for the brand that started its journey tapping into the core six to 12 or seven to 14 boys’ market. Now, Wow! Stuff is spanning all markets, including the pop culture scene, down to the pre-school market.
“At one end of the scale, we have Wow! Pods, a brand that’s now tracking at number 1,500 in all toys and games and is number 750 best-seller across every single toy and game on Amazon in the two weeks that it has been out,” says North.
“It’s going to be a really big hit for us. With Wow! Pods we have created a platform product and something that is really innovative and different in the collectables category, which allows us to overlay with the leading kids’ IP. I suppose we look at Funko and their $600 million in sales of their core Pop Vinyl product. They’ve reached that collectability in a totally different way to what we are doing, but do I think we could be a $100m or $200m brand? Absolutely. The early signs are that it will be, which wil be the first we have in that magnitude.
“At the other end of the scale, we are now in pre-school: Peppa Pig and the tech category, The Gruffalo, and the others to come; I think we are going to find ourselves being really important to any retailer selling items in the pre-school market.”
North will tell you that while disruption has always been in Wow Stuff’s DNA, the circumstances of 2020 have played a major role in enhancing the disruption and the level of innovation to have emerged from the business.
“When business wasn’t coming back as fast as we thought it would, back at the worst of the lockdown, we began to think: ‘We’re going to lose money so what else do we do?” says North. “One of the scientists of the business, Graeme Taylor, said he thought he had something that could get us out of trouble. He worked behind the scenes for a month to make sure the idea was solid, and then he presented the world’s first print at home face masks.”
To say the masks have been a success for Wow! Stuff would be doing them a disservice. The range sold out within a week of its launch, while the strides they have made in helping children to find a level of comfort amid the unease of 2020 is immeasurable.
“It sort of sums up what you have to do in dire situations,” says North. “You have to stay strong and you have to pivot.”
It is, without doubt, the hardship of 2020 that has given rise to some of its greatest moments, just as much as it was perhaps North’s momentary loss of the usual ‘achieve anything’ demeanor that propels him so successfully through business, that led to the eventual formation of one of the toy industry’s best moments of the pandemic. We mean, of course, Toy Aid.
“I remember I posted something on LinkedIn about seven weeks into the pandemic, and I was looking at the business and sales figures, and like a lot of people, just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” North recalls. “I started to feel stressed, worrying about the employees and how I was going to retain them; going from being a creative person to becoming an accountant looking for cut backs with all of these new pressures. So I wrote a LinkedIn post about it.
“It was Joel Silverman from Kids Know Best who contacted me to see if I was OK. I said I was feeling a bit strange in terms of my emotions – I can usually dig my way out of anything and prosper, but this was really unusual. He told me he was thinking of getting together a bunch of people in the industry who were maybe feeling the same way, and giving us all another focus, another direction – one to help the NHS perhaps.
“Together we came to the conclusion that Toy Aid was the right thing to do. Everything I’ve done has always been a bit disruptive, and this was the same. We came up against some kick back from the industry, but Joel’s energy towards the initiative was extraordinary – he never saw the ceiling, he never saw the walls, he just went straight through them.
“It helped with sanity for me, and gave life to something incredibly fulfilling, despite the interesting obstacles that we came up against from the industry.”
But those obstacles simply played into a narrative that fits North’s own propensity for a David vs Goliath story, perfectly. It would also seem that no matter how successful Wow! Stuff becomes with each launch and each envelope it pushes, the fighting spirit of the underdog is one the CEO will never wish to part from.
“We’ve had people work for us who were too corporate, too big company. But the second you become too big, you stop innovating, you become complacent,” North says. “What scares me in business is becoming complacent and not pushing boundaries.
“We’ve had people whose focus has been getting 20 cents off a product and sacrificing the innovation. But I’m entrepreneurial, I want 20 cents off and I want the innovation. The number of fights I’ve had with people who believe the two are mutually exclusive, well, tell that to someone like Isaac Larian.
“We are creatives who will innovate until our brains hurt. We get inspired all of the time, we never stop learning, and absorbing from colleagues, and we have brilliant minds like Graeme with us to help us to forever do that.”
In fact, it’s from the mind of Dr Graeme Taylor, one of Wow! Stuff’s resident scientists and perpetual developer of product innovation, that the firm has landed upon what it is calling a ‘groundbreaking work that will revolutionise the sustainability movement in the toy space.’
“Pre-lockdown, we were working on a product and Graeme said: ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create something where 100 per cent of it was sustainable?’ Not recyclable, not made from sugar cane, but something that was perfect without sacrifices or compromises,” enthuses North.
“And he’s cracked it.”
It tortures North as much as it tortures us to keep the details of the development out of print, for now, but with plans for an unveiling in 2021 it’s another one of those moments to promise sealed lips until the time is right.
“We’re not releasing the details of it yet, but feel free to allude to something revolutionary,” North suggests to us. “And I wouldn’t use that word unless it was. I see articles come out on new developments in this space, one was on Red Noses finding a substitute for plastic. I sent it through to Graeme and he wrote back ‘this is fantastic. I asked him if it was close to what we’ve got, and he replied: ‘Nowhere near.’”
It’s more than excitement at the commercial potential of the breakthrough with which North talks about this new leap forward in the sustainability drive, but a philosophy he has vowed to take with him throughout life, be that in a personal capacity or business. And at the heart of it, he says, is pride.
“It is a real guide to everything you can do,” says North. “You come off a call, come away from a negotiation, and you can ask yourself: Was I proud of that?”
It’s clear that the philosophy is largely at play when North talks passionately about the issue of sustainability, and his personal connection to the shift in mindset that seems to be fueling a whole new energy behind the mission to do right by the planet.
“Making profit is a bit shallow if it’s just for profit’s sake, because you want a bigger house, or you want a nice car, or to go on bigger holidays,” he says. “Because you are going to die and you are going to lay there on your deathbed and think, ‘did I put my money to good use? Well I really enjoyed it.’ But you’re going to feel pretty damn hollow when it comes to it.
“Who knows if there’s anything on the other side, but let’s assume there is or not, that final moment that goes through your mind – are you going to feel good when you die or are you going to feel bad when you die?
“To have purpose that is beyond profit, that is the right thing to do. Our purpose is to do good. Make a massive change to other people through everything that we make, and be proud of it.”