It’s hard to wave off an overture from a toy exec who walks into a master license pitch meeting dressed as one of the characters from the property his company’s chasing. And in the case of Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz, creators of the inventive, irreverent live-action preschool series Yo Gabba Gabba! that launched on Nick Jr. this past August, the minute they saw Spin Master EVP Ben Varadi enter the room suited up as lead DJ Lance Rock, toting a replica of the show’s iconic boom box, they knew the Toronto, Canada-based toyco was the one. ‘It showed Spin Master totally got the show,’ says Jacobs. ‘It was the torpedo that sank the ship.’
Spin Master signed a master toy deal with Yo Gabba co-producers The Magic Store, founded by Jacobs and Schultz, and San Francisco’s Wildbrain in early 2007. The trio has been working in lockstep to craft a mass market toy line that captures the color, cool and originality of the stylized show. In fact, the Yo Gabba team has had a direct hand in shaping Spin Master’s launch line slated to roll out this fall, and all parties appear happier for it.
Unlike some creators, The Magic Store and Wildbrain wanted to be involved in every step of the line’s design. ‘Spin Master said the more you can give us, the better the toys will be,’ notes Jacobs. For its part, Spin Master wasn’t worried about there being too many cooks in the kitchen. Brand manager Cristy Collins, who’s overseeing the Yo Gabba products, says the show is naturally toyetic and ‘when you mix that with creative guys, it makes it easy from a consensual standpoint.’
Interestingly, principals Jacobs, Schultz and their director of design services Ken Morgan and designer Parker Jacobs have had previous experience creating apparel and goods for the specialty retail market. Moreover, the series’ main characters – Brobee, Foofa, Plex, Toodee and Muno – were inspired by the creators’ love of urban vinyl figures and are, essentially, toys come to life. So when they all sat down more than a year ago to sketch out the line, the Yo Gabba team looked to Spin Master’s expertise in identifying play patterns and the toyco turned to Yo Gabba to bring the style.
Spin Master immediately singled out music and interactive as the two key play patterns for the show, now branded Gabba Grooves and Gabba Gang in the inaugural gender-neutral lineup. When it came to creating the lead music toys, along with a dancing animatronic plush based on furry green guy Brobee (SRP US$34.99), the toyco wanted to make a guitar for kids looking to rock out at home. However, the initial sketches didn’t hit the right note.
‘It was good, but the design was similar to what was on the market,’ says Jacobs. ‘We wanted a real rock n’ roll guitar.’ Spin Master’s sketch was turned over to Parker. ‘He helped create the look and feel of the show, and was instrumental in translating it to product,’ says Wildbrain chief marketing officer Michael Polis, who’s heading up consumer products strategy for the series. Polis says the objective was to make it into a toy that embodied the characters, and Parker was able to turn a new design around within a day. ‘So instead of having stickers, he reshaped the body to look like Muno.’ (See comparison on right) As such, the Groove Guitar (SRP US$24.99), like the tall red figure, is covered in bumps; Muno’s lone eyeball is now the rocker kids use to produce notes, and it sports a whammy bar shaped like his hand that infuses the funk.
‘Sometimes we need bit of extra help to get it,’ says Collins. ‘And who better to do that than someone who has spent so much time making these characters?’ From her perspective the process of creative give-and-take is pretty seamless, although it does rely on keeping in contact almost daily with the Yo Gabba team and holding frequent brainstorming sessions.
For example, coming up with a Gabba Gang concept revolving around the series’ vehicles was a group effort. Again, Spin Master had identified vehicle play as a natural, but how did it work in the context of the show? The parties got together and noted that yellow robot Plex is the responsible one, programmed to take care of the others, so why not put him in a vehicle big enough to hold all of his charges? Thus, the Plex & Vehicle set (SRP US$19.99) and corresponding figures of the gang (SRP US$7.99) were born.
Spin Master and the Yo Gabba folks are already working away on spring and fall 2009 products, as the series has been greenlit for a second season by Nickelodeon. Collins says it takes about a year to see a design through from creation to final approvals, so it’s early days yet for the refreshed assortment. However, she says it will contain toys wholly initiated by the show’s creatives.