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We sat down with Oliver to discuss Skew’s origins, his thoughts on creativity and why he feels designers don’t get the recognition they deserve in the licensing space.
Creative agency Skew boasts over fifteen years of trend forecasting and brand licensing expertise to help partners build, refresh and extend brands into new markets.
Headed up by Oliver Dyer, Skew’s client list includes mammoth brands across a wide variety of sectors, including character brands like Paddington, heritage IP like The British Museum and iconic sporting institutions like Royal Ascot.
We sat down with Oliver to discuss Skew’s origins, creativity and why designers don’t get the recognition they deserve in the licensing space.
Oliver! Delighted to catch up. To kick us off, just in case someone hasn’t come across Skew before, how would you sum up what you do?
Skew is a brand extension specialist creative agency. We’re here to maximise the brand value for the clients that we work with and we are obsessed with delivering effective creative services.
Most people we interview say they fell into this industry… Was that the case for you?
You know what, I was born to do this. For my Business Studies GSCE course work, I designed a mens underwear range. For a hook I designed a set of characters to print on them and added a condom pocket. That bit obviously got my group into loads of trouble but we sold out!
Then, when I was doing a BA in Printed Textiles, I worked at a t-shirt printers over one summer designing graphics and characters for them to create kids ranges with. When I was doing my MA in Fashion Print at St Martins, I was self-funded and the only way I could pay my way through was to win any commercial projects with cash prizes attached. I won them all, I had to. The best ones were from big FMCG brands, like Kronenbourg did one that was centred on creating a t-shirt graphics for 1664.
So, all along the way, somehow, graphics for brand extension has been part of my design life.
“We’re the ‘tough nut to crack’ agency!”
And when did you get your first job in the brands space?
I started out doing trend forecasting for high street retail and a friend went to work at BBC Worldwide. At the time, they were doing the first updates for the Teletubbies style guide. The core guide had gone out and it was the peak of Teletubby-mania. My friend asked me to consult on how to bring the trend process into character licensing. This was the early 2000s, so no-one, other than Disney in the States, was doing it. There was not another brand extension design agency in the UK with any real knowledge of trends, let alone how to apply it to character brands.
BBC merch sales for Teletubbies were huge at the time, and from my perspective they basically handed over the keys to the creative direction to the biggest pre-school media property on the planet! I was three years out of college and being invited to set the creative direction for the brand off screen – it was brilliant! And it wasn’t just for one product; it was for all products across all categories. Having that creative freedom was really seductive.
And now with Skew, you touch even more points throughout the process, right?
Yes, we have a consultancy part of our service where people come to us when they’re thinking about licensing. There’s quite a lot of change happening around how brands access this kind of knowledge and skills.
It was a bit of a silo before, where you’d have a licensing agency and a creative agency and a consultant – and everyone would be doing quite different things. Now, the reality of people doing brand extensions is that licensing is only a part of it. You have licensing agencies having more of a creative part to their offering, which I think is great, and you have creative agencies being far more strategic in their approach, which is the way we’ve been going for a long time.
We’re fee-based for the most part, so we’re not incentivised to drive clients towards a license. We can help them identify what they’ve got that’s extendable and start to put flesh on the bones of the strategy around that. That’s before anyone’s spoken to an agent.
Is there a project that proved a tough creative nut to crack that is a good example of what you guys excel at?
We’re the ‘tough nut to crack’ agency! We grew up with character licensing and that has its own challenges – it’s fiercely competitive and to stand out is insanely difficult. But with that, you do have a set of imagery to start with. You have scripts, characters, a colour palette, a tone of voice, humour – you’re handed a lot to begin with.
On the other side, you have properties that are extremely well-known and well-loved, but in terms of tangible assets, you’ve got virtually nothing. Often, in the case of something like a big event, you have a brand identity, but if you actually name that event to someone, their head is filled with all sorts of related imagery and emotions, but the client doesn’t necessarily have assets to turn that into an extension.
You have to translate what a brand means to somebody into a strategy and a set of assets and eventually a product that people will love. Creating commercial value from intangible assets is a challenge that Skew excels at.
“Designers don’t get recognition at the moment because they’re not seen to make money for the companies. It’s as simple as that.”
Does one appeal more than the other?
We like both, but we’re definitely more culturally attuned to strategy, original creation and commercial change than to feeding an existing machine.
We launched Brands Untapped to shine a spotlight on designers and the creative process behind brand extensions. You kindly reached out when we launched and said it was about time designers started getting recognition in this industry. I wanted to pick your brain on that…
Yes, designers don’t get recognition at the moment because they’re not seen to make money for the companies. It’s as simple as that. There’s not enough linking the commercial expectations – the targets that the salespeople get – with what the creative teams, both internal and external, are asked to do to support them
From the research we’ve done recently, from a creative services perspective, there’s a bit of disconnect between creative services, commercial and sales teams.
Is that a problem?
It is… For creativity, it’s a fundamental problem with the licensing industry. Follow the money. Until there’s a more direct link between creative and sales, designers in the licensing industry will never get credit for what they do.
To be clear, I’m advocating for more accountability, to be more commercial – if design is to be taken seriously it must be effective.
It’s a strange perception isn’t it, because I’d see designers as being quite obviously fundamental to the success of the products.
You’re preaching to the choir here! It’s astounding. The whole thing is design driven.
It starts with an act of creation, that creation is loved by consumers, consumers want more of that so more designers are involved in translating that original act of creation into something new, which the fans then also love. And yet, it’s only the commercial and legal teams who are driving the revenue that, in the industry at least, get any recognition. That’s the issue.
One of the benefits of the pandemic is that people have started looking at their processes to ask questions about whether what they’ve done in the past is the right way to go in the future. We’re already seeing changes in the industry when it comes to how brands are developed and how creative services are delivered. They were starting to happen, but that’s all accelerated due to the pandemic.
Well, hopefully we can help put a bit of a spotlight on them through the site and few initiatives we have coming up.
Yes, but the funny thing about the licensing industry is that licensing is just one part of brand extension, and that part is becoming less and less dominant. It’s still important, but within brand extension, there’s a myriad of different facets that are as, or more, important than the licensing deal.
The thing that should change to keep licensing relevant is to stop thinking of ourselves as the ‘licensing’ industry. Calling ourselves that is absurd. We’re not that! I’ve been trying to think of pithy name for what we should call ourselves for a long time, and the closest I’ve got is that we’re involved in fan brands. We develop for brands that have a pre-existing audience. If I could popularise the ‘fan brand industry’, that’s what I’d want to do because that’s what we are.
“We develop for brands that have a pre-existing audience. If I could popularise the ‘fan brand industry’, that’s what I’d want to do because that’s what we are.”
We’re about brand extensions and taking goods and services to fans. Whether there’s a licensing deal attached to it is completely irrelevant to the consumer. Imagine if we had an industry event that was fan driven instead of closed shop. It should be more like a B2B event and a Comic-Con combined – a true fan festival. Then you’d start to see some real innovation in the space and at that point, you’d start to see a switch in mentality about who is really driving the industry forward. Without the deals there’s no industry obviously but with fans at a show you’d see first hand why the deals are being made and that’s all driven by creative.
It’s not about one set of skills being recognised over another; it’s just about making it more balanced – and it’s never going to be balanced while it’s literally called the licensing industry.
You make some great points, and it’s actually partly why we decided on the name Brands Untapped as opposed to something with ‘licensing’ in the title.
Absolutely, and names are really important. Come on, let’s change the licensing industry, let’s get new people in, new perspectives… It’ll be exciting
I’ve taken up loads of your time already, so we’ll start to wrap things up! One of my final questions is how do you fuel your creativity? And has that been impacted by the lockdowns?
There are two things, one negative and one positive.
The negative is that from a design perspective, we’ve missed the serendipity of something as simple as the journey to work. The design team has missed being exposed to more visual stimulus. It’s led to a slight deadening of inspiration and we’ve had to deliberately go out of our way to counteract that. That’s been a problem.
It’s likely to be less of a problem for people that do all their research through Google, but we’ve never been that kind of company. We’re always out at the shops and exhibitions. We’re a London-based company and we make the most of being in a megacity.
And the positive?
I’ve found that people are a lot more accessible. For me, it’s all about having conversations, talking to new people, doing things like this! I’ve found it’s been easier to do that during lockdown that it was normally. People have got more time and I’m normally talking to very senior people who don’t have much time if they’re in the office. And access to senior people has been easier because they can just jump on a Zoom.
I’ve also found that because everyone’s at home and there’s pets invading Zoom calls, there’s less of a barrier. In our industry, there’s still a veneer of professionalism you have to negotiate before you get into stuff that’s human. Covid has really stripped that away.
You can’t pretend to be anything other than one human talking to another when you’ve got a cat’s bum in your face and a nine-year-old screaming! It’s brilliant.
Absolutely. Thanks so much for this Oliver – I’m already looking forward to our next catch up! And I should add, if anyone wants to find out more about Skew, they can do so by heading to skewstudio.com,
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