Meet Disney’s new Iron Man: Simon Philips



2012 was the year of Marvel and The Avengers, but what’s next in the toy space? In his first trade interview in his new role, Disney’s new EMEA consumer products general manager Simon Philips reveals all to Dominic Sacco...

2012 was an impressive year for Marvel, to say the least. How did you go about spawning a huge entertainment franchise – and consumer product range – in The Avengers?
It was a game-changing year. In 2006 we started a strategy to assemble the very best superheroes. In 2008 we introduced a character known to the fans, but one that wasn’t necessarily mainstream: Iron Man. Then we introduced Hulk, Thor and Captain America. We had tremendous success with those movies.

Our strategy wasn’t just to have individual characters, but to bring them together as a team. In 2012, Avengers Assemble became the number one movie of all time for The Walt Disney Company, the number three movie of all time and the biggest superhero movie of all time. It delivered on the promise we’d made to retailers and licensees: that we were going to establish the biggest superhero team of all time at retail.

We started calendar 2012 with a momentous occasion that will forever change the boys action category. It showed the power of bringing together Marvel storytelling with Disney.

We continued the year with a complete reimagination of the Spider-Man franchise through The Amazing Spider-Man movie. As part of Disney, we were able to create a brand new Spider- Man animated series, Ultimate Spider-Man, to sustain the franchise.

How well is that performing on TV?
In the UK Ultimate Spider- Man is the number one animated show on DisneyXD. The premier episode was the best-performing show in its time slot with boys aged eight to 12 on any kids’ television channel in the UK.

It will be going free-to-air in January. So we will have the Disney XD window continuing as we introduce season two, and season one will go free-to-air. It sets the stage for how Marvel is developing its franchises (see ‘What’s next for The Avengers?’).

What’s it like coming into Disney and breaking all those records?
It’s a big office (laughs). It was an incredible opportunity. So many times in the industry, people have held out Disney as a shining example of how things are done right. You kind of looked at it with envy, thinking, ‘oh if only we had the resources to do that’. Now Marvel is one of the brand pillars of Disney and it’s an incredible privilege to be part of that.

Will you bring more characters to the fore in the future?
In August 2014 we have the Guardians of the Galaxy movie – featuring a whole new set of superheroes. There are 8,000 characters we have the privilege of working with, so how can we bring them forward? The Marvel universe is also connected, so you could be reading the X-Men comics and Spider- Man could appear in them.

And how has the Spider- Man toy brand performed over the past 12 months? Disney’s Anna Chapman told us that sales had continued to rise even a while after the movie had been released...
That’s partly to do with the sustaining programme we have in place, and from a toy standpoint the unparalleled investment from Hasbro and Lego. Spider-Man has been an evergreen franchise, but we didn’t want to go through the normal decay curve after the movie, so Anna’s team worked very closely with licensees to make sure product development for autumn 2012 into spring 2013 lines emphasised the franchise continuation through Ultimate Spider-Man.

In the UK, sales of Spider- Man toys increased 107 per cent year-on-year (NPD, January to June 2012), even before the movie came out. For Avengers, sales rose 206 per cent during the same period, when the overall toy market remained static. And we want more ToyNews readers to become licensees.

What kind of opportunities are there for licensees?
There are still lots of opportunities within the toy space, especially when you walk around a Toys R Us or look at Argos’ catalogue, for example. When you look at the toys, there are opportunities for Spider-Man and Avengers.

Outside of toys, how do we maximise the über fanbase of Marvel? 
There are millions of fans – not casual fans – the die-hards who consume everything they possibly can from the comic book world. They’re not going into traditional retail channels, they’re going into other areas and they’re buying collectable figurines worth £150.

Going back to Spider-Man, what kind of new licensed toys are on the way?
We listened to retailers. They said Spider-Man is great – the best-selling superhero of all time, but if he had a team, then we would have more play pattern opportunities. And both retailers and toy companies said they wanted to see Spider-Man in a vehicle, not a fantasy one created by a toy firm.

Spider-Man has so much more tech in the first series of animated TV show Ultimate Spider-Man, and [Iron Man] Tony Stark creates for him the first ever Spider-Cycle. So we’re enhancing the play pattern of Spider-Man. The new toy product, including Power Webs, will start to hit at the beginning next year, to coincide with the launch of the free-to-air show. Toys, including dress-up and role play ranges, definitely represent the biggest category for Spider-Man.

Who are your main toy partners?
We have Hasbro from an action figure and role play perspective, Lego from a construction standpoint, Rubie’s dress-up, then Simba Dickie doing vehicles, through Character here in the UK. We have a range of other toy partners, too.

The blind bag toy category is doing very well in the UK. What are your movements in that sector? 
We have a phenomenal range of foil wrapped Minifigures. Grani&Partners, a part of the Giochi Preziosi group, specialises in the kiosk business. They do these mini figurines. What Marvel has as well, are these toys that are popular in Asia (picks up a pack and opens a figure on the table in front of us). These aren’t foil wrapped but they are collectable.

With 8,000 characters, the ability to collect and trade is... well now there’s a gaming aspect to it, too. So if you had Thor, for example, he could play against other characters.

Are there any other opportunities, partnerships or growth areas you've noticed that would benefit Marvel?
I think the electronics space is an area I’ve been tracking with the teams. We’ve looked at what’s selling really well in France and Italy at Christmas, and it’s kids’ tablets. We’re seeing more thematically created  iPod, iPad and Android accessories coming out. That’s an area that has tremendous growth opportunity.

I’ll show you something from one of our Chinese licensees that I love... (Philips walks across the room and enthusiastically rummages through some boxes, before returning). These are USB devices shaped like Iron Man or Thor or whoever, and it lights up when you plug it in. It’s absolutely brilliant. The opportunity to take Marvel play patterns and incorporate them into an app and a toy is fantastic.

What, if anything, has changed since Disney acquired Marvel?
Did you notice a shift in focus?
It’s a longer commute for me from home, compared to where it used to be (laughs). The main thing that’s changed is we have our own sales teams, who are dedicated and focused on ensuring we maximise our opportunities. Before we worked with a network of agents around the world – now we have Disney offices. We have the best retail support programme anywhere in the world.

What are your thoughts on Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm? 
And what opportunities does that bring to Marvel?
I’m a big Star Wars fan. That’s probably all I can say at this stage. Watch this space. What I’ve noticed is Disney allows Marvel to stay true to its essence – they’re not about changing it. So we’re very excited.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE AVENGERS?
- Iron Man 3 movie – April 2013
- Avengers Assemble animated TV series – mid 2013
- Thor: The Dark World movie – November 2013
- Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H animated TV series – 2013
- Captain America 2 movie – April 2014
- Fresh animated TV content – 2014
- The Avengers 2 movie – April 2015

Marvel says its strategy is to have one character- establishing movie, followed by a TV series.

“[This results in] a 365 day per year connection, so retailers and licensees can be assured that Marvel franchises come with content that will be consumed every day,” says Marvel Ent international president Simon Philips.
“For example, we have an Avengers sustaining programme. Our goal in terms of licensing is to have a constant presence at retail for Avengers. When Iron Man comes out, it will expand to absorb the Iron Man merchandise, and then the same will happen with Thor, and so on.
“There’s no other superhero or boys franchise that can claim to have event movies, animated series and all the other activity going on. Marvel is all about constant content driving franchises and we measure success not just in box office but how we engage with the consumer.”

THE MAN BEHIND MARVEL PRODUCTS
Simon Philips is responsible for The Walt Disney Company’s licensed product, publishing, Disney Store and physical games businesses across Europe, Middle East and Africa.
In his previous role, as president of Marvel Entertainment International, Philips was responsible for targeting new businesses.

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