Anthony Marks began his licensing career doing deals with the devil, the Red Devils to be precise, working in the merchandising division of Manchester United for five years. Then he moved into developing and buying branded toys, working on everything from Disney scooters to Dr Who inflatables.
“I got to a point where I wanted to take things to the next level and that’s when I launched my company Iron Gut, which initially focused on licensed limited-edition art prints,” he says.
Prints for the Godfather and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy were the company’s staple, until this year when it introduced a new vision and product line-up aimed at straddling the line between fan and obsessive – and with a focus on bringing video game brands into its core business.
“The company evolved into Fanattik. I felt the name change better encompasses where we are now as a company.”
LTW.MEDIA sat down with Mark to learn more about this journey and discover how video game IP owners – notoriously reticent to license out their properties – are awakening to the power and efficacy of brand licensing.
Anthony, video games have been overtaking movies and other entertainment in terms of revenue for years but we seem to have reached a turning point where it’s becoming one of the de facto ways people are choosing to spend their time and money. What do you put that down to?
Free games are a part of it, even if a person doesn’t own a console they will have a phone, so game accessibility and affordability is the main reason why sales of related merchandise has increased, gaming is now mainstream and no longer restricted by age.
So what do gaming fans want from their merchandise – is it different to movie buffs or sports fans?
We love niche references and in-jokes, and we only take on a property if it is something the whole team at Fanattik can get behind. As most of our titles are heritage rather then the latest release, we bring a wealth of knowledge to the table about the property so we put a lot of love in to each item we create and the fans appreciate that.
We have seen a big increase in the number of retailers asking us to work with them to create exclusive product, these exclusives give them a real point of difference online and in-store and we love working on these sorts of collectibles.
Fanattik seems to steer clear of general merch like mugs and T-shirts and instead focus on niche collectables for the hardcore fanbase. What’s the appetite like for these types of products?
It’s growing. We have no interest in trying to compete with the mass market on items such as mugs or T-shirts. Our focus is on creating unique low edition items but that aren’t just for hardcore fans but are accessible to all fans, we want to create collectables for all.
What sorts of video game properties make for good, marketable licenses?
It’s all about the passion of the fans. Some of the pieces we create are limited to only 500 worldwide, so it doesn’t revolve around the size of the fan base.
How do retro brands like Street Fighter stack up to newer IP like Sea of Thieves in terms of sales and demand from fans?
That is a tough question to answer. If you would have asked me that before Sea of Thieves came along, I would have said that the retro titles by far work better for us, but we had a really positive experience with Sea of Thieves, the fans really enjoyed the range we created.
One of the reasons we focused on heritage titles in the past was so we could bring to the retailer a brand with multi-generational appeal. It means there was no need to rely on pester power or reviews in the first 24 hours of a game release to dictate whether the range was going to be successful or not. We wanted to offer branded collections with a proven track record and an existing fan base eager for product.
Video game publishers and brand owners have been notoriously bad or reticent at licensing out their properties. How is that changing?
When we first started out in gaming product, we did encounter some issues with the older titles. Studios were not sure who owned what IP, and it was a challenge to get anything new approved. That’s why you saw a lot of logo label slapping on product and that isn’t what we wanted to do.
The situation has really improved now. Companies such as Capcom and SEGA get it and have always been really supportive with us. Going back to Sea of Thieves, which was by Microsoft’s RARE, their team are so passionate about the game and they could see how passionate we were about the product and that resulted in a really positive product development experience.
You also do movie merch, so how do your video game products stack up?
I would say we are about a 70/30 split currently, with video game product being the latter. But we see things levelling out going forward as we are in development with a heritage range for one video game studio, we will be expanding our Capcom range and just recently announcing our license with Bethesda which gives us access to some fantastic titles both old and new.
How is your business growing on the back of video game licensing – and licensing in general?
The business enjoyed fantastic growth in 2018 and that will continue as more retailers find out who we are. Expanding our licensed offering to include brands such as Bethesda will also enable us to ‘level up’.
And finally, who is the dream partnerships? Are there any gaming brands you haven’t seen licensed – or licensed widely – you think would be a huge hit?
Nintendo would be an amazing brand to work with. I am a huge fan of their titles and would love to work with them in the future.
As for brands that haven’t been licensed widely, I remember playing Warhammer at Games Workshop when I was younger and then when I had a son taking him to the stores to play. In the last few years that brand has exploded. I have met the team there, they are truly passionate about their brand, so we wish them every success as they break into the mainstream with their licensed merchandise.