This second installment of Toy & Hobby Retailer's chat with Ed Wells, sees him delve into the licensing programs, upcoming content and humanitarian work in the Middle East.
What are the pillars of the Sesame Street licensing program?
We have subtle educational elements in everything that we do so in terms of the toys that we create, you might have a plush that has an opportunity for kids to learn elements of tying shoes, or zipping jackets or things like this, so we build educational elements in to the product to as much of a degree as we can. But we also know, that part of consumer products for us is our way of keeping the brand top of mind and keeping kids engaged and the more we engage, the more we can teach. Not everything has to be overtly educational, it's a lot about making sure that we are where kids and parents are, and they see us and we're top of mind and then they come in to the ecosystem and then they participate and engage with the content.
We also are having a great time focusing on collaborations as well, so we've been working with a lot of really big name retailers and designers to bring collaborations around our brand. We have a fantastic partnership that we're so excited about, with the Inditext group which is the largest fashion retailer in the world now and they've done a tie-in with us. I think we're in the second phase of the Zara launch and the first phase of the Pull & Bear launch and the product is brilliant, it's beautiful, they do an amazing job of merchandising and display. Again you're working with really leading fashion retailers so it keeps you top of mind and it works to keep you relevant and trendy.
It's been announced now, so I think I can talk about it, but we're launching a program with Uniqlo – another influential fashion retailer – so this will be a collaboration between Uniqlo and Kaws – a world-famous street pop-culture artist, who is hugely influential in that space – so we're really excited to see how he re-interprets our characters and how we bring them to life in a different way.
So those types of partnerships are really a focus for us recently, and I think it gets back to your original question of, 'how do you keep re-inventing yourself? How do you stay relevant? How do you stay top-of-mind?' I think working with really best-in-class partners and opinion leaders is one way that you do that.
What other partnerships are in the pipeline?
Shifting gears just a little bit, it's not necessarily specific to the licensing space, but on the content side of things, Sesame Workshop is in a tremendous growth phase. Everyone knows us for Sesame Street, the flagship program, but we also have an entire content development division, that thinks about exactly what you're asking – 'what's next?' For the past several years we have only been presenting Sesame Street, but we're now going to be going into production on some new IP, that are not necessarily Sesame Street IP, but are part of Sesame Workshop, so it's still rooted in education, it's still rooted in the same fundamentals, but will not share the same characters.
The first of those is an animated series called Esme and Roy and that is a co-production with HBO and Nelvana, so that'll debut in the US in fall of 2018 and we'll take that internationally together with Nelvana next year.
While we can't announce any specifics yet, we are working on another content partnership, where we expect to put three additional shows into production, so we should have four or five shows in production in the next year and that's incredibly exciting for us; we're more than doubling the current production that we have already. It just gives you a sense of where we're at as an organisation – Sesame Workshop – all of these programs are innovative, educational and we continue to be working with best-in-class partners. I look forward to being able to announce and tell you who the partners are on those new programs but for now I would just say that you should expect to see new animated programs targeting the same core target of Sesame – two to six year olds – but we're also going to look at more live-action series and aging up even to the six to nine range.
We see an opportunity to take that educational ethos and continue to deliver through digital properties. Sesame has a rich history over the last 50 years of creating other series', we've created Furchester and Ghostwriter and other shows over the years, so it's something that we have traditionally done over the years, but we haven't done it recently so it's exciting to see us in this growth phase.
Any further comments?
I'm thrilled that I've been able to join the organisation at a time when the work that we do, the mission that we have is as important as it's ever been and the content is as innovative as it's ever been, and we're being recognised for that.
I guess I would be remiss if I didn't talk a little bit about the work we're going to be doing in the Middle East with the MacArthur Foundation. We are beyond thrilled and humbled to be named as the fist recipient of their 100&Change Award, which is $100 million over the next five years – we've been awarded that together with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – to go into the Middle East and support and help children and communities who've been affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.
This is, for us, one of the most important issues of our time, and there's an entire generation of children who've known nothing but war and displacement. We're just so humbled to have been chosen to be the organisation that is being funded to go into the communities and do this work.
I think going into your 50th and being in a position to do that kind of [work] – and I will try to follow up to get you the exact wording – I always get it wrong – but this will be the largest early childhood humanitarian aid effort in history [or] in the history of humanitarian aid or something like that. Just think about that, to be trusted to do something on that scale is tremendous and it's exciting, because we sit in a space where nobody else sits. We are rooted in education, and we're rooted in entertainment and we have these characters that are evergreen and loved around the world. We're the only people who can put those three things together and do it in a way that teaches, and has some fun at the same time.
What are the specifics of the humanitarian aid?
Well we will create a new program, a media program, that goes into communities. The targeted communities and countries are going to be Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, that's the area most immediately affected, but we do believe that we will be able to take the program to other places, certainly even in Europe and other parts of the world, where refugees are displaced.
So there will be a media portion that we will create which will have diversity and inclusion as part of that and resilience – we've yet to announce exactly what the elements will be – but we will be creating it in a way that kids are engaging with the characters and learning about these really important life lessons and skills. They'll learn along with the characters, I think that's the really special part of it.
We in partnership with the IRC – the IRC has boots on the ground – so it's just an amazing marriage there. Together we create this media and then they help us – we will distribute it, we will get it on all the major media platforms throughout the region – but then they have the boots on the ground to go into communities and we'll also provide paper elements or digital elements that they can bring into communities and work with the caregivers. So [then] you're getting in to schools, getting into hospitals and getting into families, whatever support systems exist in those communities.
It's just as important to be in there inside the communities first-hand working with the children and caregivers, so it's just a fantastic program the way that it's going to be designed. And we'll be doing a lot of research around it, so the research will help us to understand the efficacy of what we're doing and continue to evolve and we hope that it becomes a template for humanitarian aid for children around the world.
A lot of people still don't know that we're a non-profit organisation, so maybe that's the place to start [laughs]. All of this other work that we do, all of that commercial work, is designed to support the mission. It's designed to funnel back in and allow us to do the work that we're doing.
This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.