Want to find the next Pokemon and license it to promote your business? A new Princeton-based firm, 360ep LLC, says it can do that. Or maybe you are the one with the next hot character idea. 360ep’s artists and writers can take the character and help create action-oriented stories, then turn the toy or story into comics and picture book "storyboard" formats for the mass audience of kids or teens – and get it pitch-ready for a possible television or movie audition.
Then you can be connected with sponsors that, for such products as fast foods and soft drinks, will pay for the advertising. The company promises to take care of problems and opportunities in marketing and intellectual property law.
Bill Jemas, the 46-year-old former COO and president of Marvel Comics, has founded this entertainment properties management company. When Jemas went to Marvel in 1999, it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and by the time he left earlier this year, he had revived the firm, tapping the licensing opportunities for such characters as Spiderman, Hulk, and Captain America and developing toys, games, and movies. Now he and Russ Brown, the former head of the licensing department for Marvel, aim to use these same skills as consultants.
The firm employs 12 people – writers, artists, producers and editors. The creative work takes place in New York, and Jemas plans to add business management staff to his two-person office at 20 Nassau Street.
With his terrific turnaround record and even better networking contacts, Jemas has landed some impressive contracts including one with AOL to license the characters and games on the kids’ and teen’s sites.
After Rutgers, Class of 1980, Jemas went to Harvard Law School, working first as a tax lawyer. But he soon abandoned that field to go into licensing and promotions with the NBA and Madison Square Garden before joining Marvel. He and his wife, Jane, who is co-president of the PTA at Riverside School in Princeton, have two schoolage sons.
"The reason why Russ and I are able to launch this business is because we have the support of people we worked with in the comic book business," he says. "They really want to see a new company do well, see Russ and me do well, and this whole group of people who came from Marvel do well."
Currently the company has a relationship with Majesco Games, a publicly traded firm in Edison, most known for a device that plays videos on Game Boys. Jemas is working with an action adventure, Advent Rising, written in part by Orson Scott Card.
Another contract is with Bravo Food, which makes fortified flavored milk called Slammers. It comes in flavors that taste like Milky Way or Starburst candies. "In the next few months it will be everywhere," says Jemas. "A serious pediatrician runs the operations, and its sugar level is similar to the others on the marketplace, but these are fully vitamin fortified. We believe in the product."
For an electronic gaming company it is doing a comic book, and for an adult male doll, "Mr. Wonderful," it is creating greeting cards, a calendar, and novelty licensing.
Here are the services offered by 360ep:
High-end graphics: Visual identity packages, including electronic and printed style guides and innovative product concepts and package designs.
Custom publishing: Turning a novel, game, toy, or brand into a well-rounded entertainment property, making comics and illustrated storybooks. Nonprofits and charities can do this. At Marvel, the Doris Day Foundation for Animal Rights and a charity for burn victims were among the charities that requisitioned comic books.
Digital asset management: Storing images in a database, readily retrieved by clients and their affiliates.
Retail promotions: Sell-in services and promotional campaigns run with major retail chains. At Marvel, an alliance with the Buster Brown shoe company helped the Ultimate Spiderman grow to be the largest selling graphic novel in history. "Buster Brown created beautiful Spiderman shoes, and in each one of the million shoe boxes they put a free copy of the Ultimate Spiderman," says Jemas.
Sponsorships: Promotional relationships with fast food, soft drink, package goods and service companies.
Facilitating backend operations for licensors and licensees, from revenue projections and product development to royalty reporting and product approvals,
The business model that calls for 360ep to cross-promote with a published product is the service that people want to buy, says Jemas.
"But sometimes the best thing is to talk the client out of a job." Creative services can be very expensive. "If people really don’t have good intellectual property rights that can be viably licensed, we try to ease them out of the licensing world."
Jemas grew up in New Jersey, the oldest boy in a family of four children, and his father was a sergeant major in the U.S. Army who later worked for Ford Motor Company. "The key to my career has been figuring out what consumers wanted and putting the systems together to give them what they want," Jemas says. "But from my father I learned to deal with angry letters, disappointed retailers, and office seekers."
A noncommissioned officer must listen carefully but filter out the noise of the many complaints. "A big part of the lesson I learned early from my Dad, is that you let people give their excuse, and then you don’t manage to the excuse."
Doing the turnaround at Marvel gave him plenty of practice in filtering excuses. "We got a tremendous backlash from people who snipe at everything new," he says. "You learn to accept the negative and use that to channel people who are more positive about the project, to galvanize themselves into action.
One of his innovations was to bring teenage readers to comic books. You’d think that comics have always been made for teens, but no. The storylines of the adventure heroes at Marvel had been strung out for decades. When Jemas came to Marvel, teens weren’t reading Spiderman.
"The excuse was bad distribution and that kids didn’t read, but the books were not accessible to new kid readers," he says. "But every single Spiderman story was part of a 40-year serial, and we had to break that chain to hit new readers. By creating brand new stories, we opened up the whole bookstore class of trade which had never existed before."
Change makes insiders unhappy. "We didn’t really need to fire the existing group of writers, but some of them didn’t want to work that way. And for one book, we got more negative reviews before the book was published than I had ever seen. But there are 100,000 people who vote with their pocketbook and their feet. Our major initiatives were heavily supported at the retail level. We had record ‘sell’ levels in a down market."
Another turnaround strategy was, predictably, to trim the fat payroll. "Hundreds of people were hanging on," he says. "We kept as many as we could, and it was a close call at that. We got close to the second bankruptcy."
For example, 50 people were coloring drawings by hand on paper and Federal Expressing packages to the colorists for a cost of $600,000. "But the computer colorists had no use for that work at all. The colorists only wanted to use the last issue as a guide." When he closed that department, a significant number of the downsized artists learned computer coloring.
Other innovations on Jemas’ watch were to create a Captain America, who was African American, and to publish a book called 4-1-1, in which Gandhi’s grandson described peaceful alternatives to violence. It happened to be released just as Congress was voting for the war in Iraq.
Comic books, for Jemas, are not just comics, they are "graphic novels," and now that he has brought Spiderman and the Hulk to teenagers, he wants to use comics to discuss politics, sex, and religion with adults. "We are developing comic books for the New Yorker audience," he says.
"If you take the kid label off the comic book you can explore (subjects) in a way very difficult to do with prose. They have an immediacy and a speed that you don’t see with novels," he says.
One example was the set of 9/11 books he did to mourn the loss of lives from that tragedy. "The book I am most proud of is a tribute to the father of someone who worked with me, a building inspector who was found in the stairwell. We documented his day. We donated everything, and we got the printer and everyone in the supply chain to agree. Some retailers kept their own accounts and made their own donations."
Jemas cautions against do-it-yourself licensing. "In 1995 I had an idea for ‘T.J. Tractor’ about 18 months before ‘Bob the Builder’ came on the scene, and I struck out." Realizing he didn’t have the right network to make it in that industry, he went to work in that industry.
"So my best advice is to get a full-time job in that area or get the help of a professional. It is very very easy to be fooled. Movie studios have great sales pitches but the best way to lose money is with a movie license. Shop like crazy but see a professional."
360ep LLC, 20 Nassau Street, Suite 240, Princeton 08542. Bill Jemas. 609-921-9200; fax, 609-921-6688. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Home page: www.360ep.com
If you hire a celebrity for your company’s promotional efforts, you might get burned. Just think of Nike and Kobe Bryant, says Bob Ryan, managing partner of Montgomery Commons-based Topspin Group, a full service marketing and promotion agency. His firm helps national firms leverage their licensing opportunities, but it can also do promotions for small clients in the Princeton area. For instance, it put together a viewbook for Princeton Montessori School.
Whether the company is small or large, Ryan says it is important to keep the primary customer in mind. Swanson’s Hungry Man dinners, for instance, targets macho males with an "eat well, live large" theme. So Topspin set up a contest with the first prize of a four-day, $3,000 trip to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. "Poker appeals to the Hungry Man customer who has time on his hands but not enough time to cook; he gets home late and wants to decompress," says Ryan.
Catering to a different demographic for Mrs. Butterworth’s Little Dunkers (individual sizes of French toast and waffles), Topspin paired the syrup company with Nickolodeon, a family TV channel, for a contest that offers a family trip to New York City and breakfast with the cast of Nick U-Pick Live at Nickelodeon Studios. "We fly you in, meet you at the airport, and escort you to the hotel and to the set," says Ryan. "We are getting a great response and the product is flying off the shelves."
With an expanded staff of 10, Topspin doubled its space within Montgomery Commons, moving 214 Commons Way to 415 Executive Drive. It is a spinoff from QLM Marketing at Research Park (U.S. 1, March 26, 2003). Among its services are promotion marketing, direct marketing, PR, branding, web marketing, interactive, field marketing, events, tie-ins, and in-store marketing. Its clients include Vlasik pickles, Duncan Hines, Johnson & Johnson, and Best Friends Pet Resorts and Salons, a chain of 40 upscale pet boarding facilities and pet grooming.
Ryan offers this advice:
Keep a firm connection. "When you hire a celebrity or associate yourself with another company, there has to be a connection between what you stand for or are selling and what that celebrity stands for in the marketplace," he says. "If you are helping support medical research, there is a seriousness to the work that you do that should not be undercut by supporting a clownlike, frivolous figure." A good example is Dana Reeve, who was invited to speak at a symposium for University Medical Center at Princeton.
Look for the natural fit. Dannon, for instance, makes the only bottled fluoridated water, so Topspin paired it with ACT rinse and mouthwash. "Both companies got together to provide materials that dentists could give out to patients," says Ryan.
Measure the risk. Be cautious about using a celebrity who hasn’t done this sort of thing before, says Ryan. "What they do tends to reflect on you."
Ask the experts whether the celebrities were reliable? Easy to work with? Showed up on time? Charged a reasonable amount of money? If you had a family oriented firm and were associated with Janet Jackson, you would not have been pleased with the Super Bowl brouhaha.
The Topspin Group, 415 Executive Way, Montgomery Commons, Princeton 08540. Robert V. Ryan, managing partner. 609-252-9515; fax, 609-252-9294. Home Page: www.topspingroup.com