MV Sports MD Phil Ratcliffe on design, innovation and industry evolutions
First of all Phil, can you tell us about your company and your role within it?
I am Managing Director of MV Sports and Commercial Director at Tandem Group plc. My role is front facing, heading up licensing, product development, sales and generally interfering!
You have been heavily involved in the licensing market for many years. What are some of the key changes to hit the licensing space since you’ve been a part of it?
There’s been many changes. Firstly, the proliferation of new and available properties – only very few of which succeed. Secondly, the way consumers – kids in particular – are viewing content. It’s no longer a case of just sitting in front of the TV. Thirdly, the consolidation of licensors into fewer major powerhouses.
You focus on wheeled toys. What are the main design challenges and opportunities in your category when using licensed brands?
We are focusing more and more on the outdoor market in general – not just wheels – and yes, there are challenges when it comes to design and incorporating a brand’s DNA. Over the years we have focused on added value propositions such as on-board toys, plush, figurines, electronics, lights and so on. We endeavour to be the innovators in the category.
In the current difficult economic climate, it’s often a challenge to convince customers that parents and kids still buy into additional bespoke features – as opposed to cheapest. That said, time and time again we have proved that by capturing the essence of a property, consumers do buy into ‘the magic’.
More recently we have been pursuing a segmentation strategy whereby we develop different propositions for different retail channels. However, I would say that overall, our level of design and decoration is above and beyond, even on our entry level product.
When judging a new brand, do you have set criteria for assessing it? What makes a good licence for you?
Our category isn’t necessarily a ‘wave one’ licensing opportunity, which sometimes gives us some breathing space to monitor its progress. Many of our buyers are closely connected to master toy so very quickly we can get a sense of perspective and whether a license is working or building.
Beyond that, we look at the consumer demographic and whether it’s appropriate to our core category. We have to be quite selective because not all customers will support all our licenses and online selections have become more restrictive in recent years. Notwithstanding the aforementioned criteria, we also need to see medium to long term potential via retail engagement, content growth and cross category licensee support.
Given the increased popularity in cycling, has your sector benefitted from this?
Absolutely! I always find it fascinating that wheeled products are lumped in with the seasonal Spring/Summer buying cycle and as such some customers back away from AW shelf space. Our sales are most definitely a year-round proposition with not one, but two spikes – one in summer and one at Christmas.
Furthermore, our pack sizes are deceptively small… Most people think that scooters and bikes live in massive boxes but they are, in fact, much smaller that some toy playsets. And if a license lands, then the volume and sales velocity can be higher than most other licensed categories.
What have been some of the recent product innovations in your category in recent times?
There are too many to mention here but we have included on-board blasters and darts onto all our Nerf products, sequinned stems and glitter footplates for Barbie and a triple award-winning web slinging battery operated ride on for Spider-Man.
Great stuff! Now, what makes a good licensing style guide do you think?
One that isn’t totally apparel and soft lines focused! We need a style guide with good content, based on the longer-term core property rather than seasonal trends.
Before we let you go, thinking over your career, can you highlight the top three products you have developed?
That’s a good question! There have been many highlights over the years but three spring to mind…
I remember my boss at Waddingtons – since sold to Hasbro – coming in one afternoon saying that there was a hot new license called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He needed a board game on his desk the following day! The PD department produced the goods and both the game, and the license sold like the clappers.
During my time at Mattel, we had a successful action toy range called Street Sharks and I helped the agency with the licensing programme, presenting to all my licensee peers at Planet Hollywood. Terrifying!
More recently at MV we won the Licensing Award for Best Toy Range for our innovative Ben 10 line, which was a fantastic experience given the competition in toys.
Great picks! Thanks again Phil.