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Book Smarts: Style guides evolve online

Given the round of belt-tightening taking place as the economic downturn grips the globe, it's not surprising that licensors are preparing to take things down a notch. And one area ripe for cost-savings is style guide production. It might not be time to toll the bell just yet, but a survey of some industry insiders reveals that the no-holds-barred, no-corners-cut printed style guide is headed for extinction. It seems the hefty price tag attached - upwards of US$200,000 for a glossy hardcover custom-printed guide - is looking more and more like a nice lump of fat fit for trimming.
January 6, 2009

Given the round of belt-tightening taking place as the economic downturn grips the globe, it’s not surprising that licensors are preparing to take things down a notch. And one area ripe for cost-savings is style guide production. It might not be time to toll the bell just yet, but a survey of some industry insiders reveals that the no-holds-barred, no-corners-cut printed style guide is headed for extinction. It seems the hefty price tag attached – upwards of US$200,000 for a glossy hardcover custom-printed guide – is looking more and more like a nice lump of fat fit for trimming.

While style guides remain at the center of every licensing program, acting as a roadmap for licensees and setting the parameters on how an IP is interpreted, the mode of distribution is shifting. And like much printed product from the past, the future of the style guide is online. Typically, going with an electronic version can help licensors pocket savings between 20% and 50% per guide, so it’s not hard to see why they’re becoming increasingly attractive.

William Clarke, VP of creative at Twentieth Century Fox Licensing & Merchandising, confirms that his company rarely sends out glossy style guides anymore.

‘We do send out mini-guides that include a disk and a book, but only for our Simpsons program and only to Europe,’ he notes. ‘The transition has been in the last two years, and it’s been a huge cost-saving measure.’ Clarke wasn’t at liberty to say exactly how much, just that the savings were significant in terms of percentage.

For the most part, Clarke says the guides are uploaded as PDFs to a site with a series of permissions attached that give licensees access only to the assets appropriate to their individual categories. For instance, apparel manufacturers receive passwords and permissions only for the apparel designs and nothing more.

Clarke, who has a background in design, is sensitive to the concerns of designers and artists who bemoan the lack of a tactile guide to thumb through while brainstorming new product ideas, but he also realizes that it’s become a real world dollars-and-cents issue. To mitigate the absence of a printed roadmap, Fox has created work-arounds that let licensees print what they need to from the screen. Also, the company’s creative department prints tabloid-size versions of books for its sales teams. That said, style guides of the old order have not been in mass production or distribution since he joined the company two years ago.

Matt Nuccio, head designer from Design Edge, a firm that cut its teeth in the ’90s making style guides for the likes of Warner Bros. and Disney and that has continued working for majors such as Nickelodeon, says he has personally witnessed the sun setting on traditional style guides over the last handful of years. ‘It’s been a trend for a while,’ he says from his Long Island, New York-based studio. ‘I’ve seen companies going from traditional guides down to websites – and even those websites have gotten smaller and smaller. It’s actually very rare to get anything tangible these days.’

Moreover, Nuccio feels that the move to putting style guide assets and product approvals online is truncating communication paths. ‘If you have an innovative idea about how to create a new package or design based on a new product, there is just no one to talk to about it,’ he explains. ‘You can’t get anyone on the phone anymore.’

The disconnect is more serious than just a passing annoyance when you consider that on both sides of the equation, communication is the key to an effective guide and, by extension, a vibrant program. ‘If you look at retail now, I personally find everything so vanilla,’ says Nuccio. ‘It’s doing more justice for the license than it is for the project. It really should be a partnership.’

Somewhat more upbeat is Cynthia Rapp, VP and creative director for Cartoon Network Enterprises. She admits that custom-printed style guides are going the way of the dodo, but sees a future in a hybrid model, where less elaborate printed mini-guides might include a digital component, such as a disk containing downloadable digital assets. CN does produce these guides for most of its properties and updates them on an annual basis with the help of freelance design firms. They are still considerably less expensive than the old style guides, but the percentage varies depending on the property.

And sometimes business just moves too fast to stick with tradition. According to Rapp, the swiftness with which some programs need to be updated makes digital guides a must. ‘With our Chowder program, there was an opportunity for a softline program, so we had to design a group of assets digitally and send them to the licensors,’ she says. ‘There just wasn’t time to design a book and print it up. So, I see lots of growth online under those circumstances.’

The hybrid mode is also championed by Randy Nellis, VP of creative at Sony Pictures Consumer Marketing. While Nellis says that an online guide system is still in its infancy at the company, having just been instituted three months ago, he doesn’t foresee the online technology completely taking over. ‘We supplement online components with printed pieces,’ he says. ‘It gives partners something they can flip through and look at. We will continue to try and create some sort of printed piece.’

Pointing directly to the heavy costs of printing and design work, Debra Joester, president and CEO of licensing agency The Joester Loria Group, says that it has been years since she has been involved with printing up high-cost guides. In fact, her company and many like it, including Sony Pictures Consumer Products, currently use third-party facilitator Conecture Technologies (based in Cincinnati, Ohio) and its MediaBox program for sending all online art and design specifications to clients.

‘It allows you to give access to presentations to retailers and examples of what other licensees are doing,’ she says. ‘It has been a very effective way to share creative.’ Joester adds that the advances in technology, including the totally electronic guides, have facilitated much faster turnarounds, shortening the time it takes to get an idea from the design table to the retail shelf. However, that also means retailers can wait even longer before dedicating shelf space to the new products.

‘Everything moves quicker because retailers are making their decisions later and later and asking for final changes later,’ says Joester. She contends that the online guides and approvals are really the only way to keep up with the current breakneck speed of category updates, especially in softlines categories.

The move to a fully digital environment isn’t all sunshine and cost-savings, however. As Fox’s Clarke points out, the current software interfaces for online guides often have rudimentary navigation capabilities and aren’t particularly user-friendly, which can cause lost time, frustration and even anxiety.

‘I think online guides for manufacturing partners really should be treated as products aimed at general consumers, so that the ease and access to their assets is no different than it would be if you were purchasing items at Getty Images or Amazon.com,’ says Clarke.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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