Toy Inventors--The Heart and Soul of the Toy Industry
By Nancy Zwiers
Some of my favorite people in the industry are inventors. Is that a self-serving stance since I too was a toy inventor for a portion of my 30+ years in the industry? I like to think I was attracted to the occupation because I was so attracted to the people in it.
At its core, the toy industry is about children and play. Inventors embody that ethos better than perhaps any other type of participant. Most of my time was spent as a marketing executive…at Mattel (1990-1999), Funosophy, Inc. (2000-2015), Spin Master (2015-2019) and as a coach with CMO Coaches (2020-2022). But let’s be clear: product has always been my passion. Product is how we deliver play value—our industry’s reason-for-being. The rest just facilitates that delivery of value.
Play involves creativity, experimentation, openness, resilience, childlike wonder, spontaneity, and at its best, love and passion. Sounds a lot like the inventors I know!
I remember BMT when it stood for the founders (Jeff) Breslow, (Howard) Morrison, and (Rouben) Terzian. They were a fixture at Mattel and we did countless deals with them for innovative Barbie dolls, including My Size Barbie. My favorite project with them was the relaunch of Polly Pocket with the introduction of Fashion Polly. In that case, they had to share the credit (and royalty) with Casey Norman of Genie Toys, who had the patent on kraton clothes, and Chris Wiggs/Chris Taylor of Origin who invented the original Polly Pocket brand with the “peg” doll and compacts. Real Talkin’ Bubba was also so fun!
We worked with Bang Zoom, Bruce Lund, Seven Towns, Rehkemper Design, Kiscom/the Obb, Elliot Rudell, Marvin Glass, Pace Development, Loren Taylor (RIP), and many others.
I had the special honor and privilege of working with Xavier Roberts, inventor of Cabbage Patch Kids, who became an “overnight success” in 1983 after 6 years of selling his hand-sewn dolls at county fairs and flea markets.
Working with inventors inspired me to create IP, my vision when I founded Funosophy.
The Funosophy Era
Shoot the Moon was really hitting its stride after Teddy Ruxpin, and I was thrilled when they tapped my company Funosophy to work with them on their several of their innovative projects. Over the years, David Small and Paul Rago became great friends, and we made it a point to break bread (and enjoy libations) together at every Toy Fair.
When Funosophy began its Collaborative Invention initiative, we worked very closely with Charlie Albert and his team at FunFare, the inventor arm of Creativity Inc. His sound engineering expertise made unique innovations possible. We still share a 10-year royalty stream together from Leapfrog on the award-winning Poppin’ Play Piano (although the numbers are tiny these days—covers a nice dinner out each quarter).
Brass Key Creative was both a client and collaborator, working closely with us on many inventions that yielded hefty six figure advances/royalty streams but--as is so often the case--never fulfilled their early promise in the marketplace: Pingwee (Mattel), Tweet Hearts (Mattel), Fashion Marks (Cra-Z-Art) , Pony Royale (Razor), and Tatumi (Bandai).
Some of my fellow Mattel alumni were collaborative inventors, most notably my beloved Robin Smith and Lili Davidson, who worked on our first IP-Kid Q’s (Usaopoly). Other Mattel alums include designer Margo Moschel, Heather Fonseca, engineer Gene Insley, branding expert Donna Wittlin, as well as powerhouse marketers. Importantly, Janet Schriever, one of the most visually creative girls designers that I have worked with, created Tini Puppini which led to our first invention licensing deal (with Spin Master), and she conceived the clever name Tatumi (tattoo-me).
Spin Master Era
While I was no longer on the front lines in meeting with inventors as CMO of Spin Master, I was lucky to have launched many amazing products licensed from inventors. Most notably, we worked with Shoot the Moon on Hatchimals and I was thrilled when they received their well-deserved Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2018 TAGIES after decades of huge hits. Among others, I worked with David Fuhrer on Twisty Pets, Fuse on Off the Hook, and a myriad of game inventors (including Don Ullman of Soggy Doggy fame).
Executive Coaching Era
Two of my favorite clients this past year are inventors--Jason Lautenschleger of Barry and Jason Games that lives at the intersection of games and entertainment and Mary Lenehan, who started her prolific design career at two of Chicagoland's premiere invention houses--Marvin Glass and Rehkemper.
In Closing The toy inventor community is one of the most vibrant group of people I have ever collaborated with. I am so fortunate to have worked with so many of you! (P.S. This is my longest column ever, so apologize if I did not have space to include all the wonderful toy inventors I’ve met along my journey through the land of play.)
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