Andy Heyward, Harold Chizick on Navigating the Kids’ Business


Andy Heyward, chairman and CEO of Genius Brands International, and Harold Chizick, CEO and co-founder of ChizComm, discussed the rapidly evolving children’s media landscape and what companies should consider in order to thrive in their TV Kids Festival keynote, which wrapped with a sneak peek at Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten, introduced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The session, The Genius Approach, was moderated by Anna Carugati, the group editorial director of World Screen and TV Kids, and took place on day one of the TV Kids Festival. It opened with Heyward discussing Genius Brands’ November 2020 acquisition of ChizComm and its media research, planning and buying division, ChizComm Beacon Media.

“I have been a huge fan of Harold and the company for many, many years,” said Heyward. “I understood that media buying in kids is so important, and they represent pretty much every major client in the toy business.” After meeting Chizick, Heyward said they were both clear on the opportunities “for how to create value and grow our businesses together.”

Chizick added, “When you think about the business we’re in and how it works and what manufacturers and partners are looking for in terms of that one group where they can get a little bit of everything and the expertise to amplify brands and their businesses, [the deal] was a no-brainer.”

Carugati asked Heyward about the Genius Brands ethos. “We try to distinguish ourselves from the competition in a couple of ways. First, we are producing ‘content with a purpose.’ We’re very focused on doing things that bring some kind of positivity and enrichment to kids. Everything we’re doing has to have entertainment value for kids and commercial value that will bring profits to our investors and shareholders. But at the same time, we think we can get there better and also be better citizens if we’re producing things that have some form of enrichment to the kids—they can take something away from every story they see.”

On managing the challenges of 2020, Chizick noted, “We had to adapt. Our sweet spot in most of our business is with the emerging and mid-size companies, so we’ve been instrumental in helping their growth, and they ours. They stuck with us through the hard times.” The first half of the year was particularly tough, Chizick noted. “We had ambitious goals for growth, and all of a sudden, we thought we were going to be stunted.” E-commerce, and being in the more pandemic-proof kids’ and family space, certainly helped the company overcome the obstacles of 2020. “While [our clients’] businesses had some hurdles, as things started to normalize and sales started to come, it’s unbelievable how we made up what we thought would impact our overall year growth.

“We may have shifted some of the ways we executed marketing plans, and we may not have had the luxury of our clients committing as early as they normally would, but thankfully our network partners stepped up and made it so that our client base was afforded a little bit of extra time, a little bit of leeway, knowing that as the market was emerging and normalizing from a marketing standpoint, the media dollars would be there.”

It was also a good year for Genius Brands, Heyward said, referencing the launch of the Kartoon Channel! “It’s like a Netflix for kids, but free,” Heyward noted. “The importance of being for free can’t be overlooked. In today’s world, when so many families are being challenged with their budgets, you can only subscribe to so many [SVOD services]. At some point you say, we can’t afford all these services for our kids. Our service is advertiser supported; it’s 100 percent free.” It is available on Amazon, Apple and Android devices. On top of that, Kartoon Channel! has a presence on Comcast, Cox, DISH, Roku, Tubi and a range of smart TV devices, including Samsung and LG. “The platform has been established. We are now investing very heavily in premier content, not just content we acquire but original content.” The first of the Kartoon Channel! originals is Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Genius Brands is also working with Shaquille O’Neal on a new series, Shaq’s Garage. Other originals are in the works.

Heyward noted that Genius Brands is also focused on investing in “top-tier talent and human capital,” with a management team that includes Margaret Loesch as executive chairman of Kartoon Channel!; David Neuman, formerly president of Walt Disney Television, as the chief creative officer of the service; and Batman producer Michael Uslan as head of development for Stan Lee Universe. Meanwhile, ex-Hasbro exec Lloyd Mintz oversees Genius Brands’ consumer-products business.

Carugati asked Heyward about the importance of controlling both the IP and the distribution platform. “You can have the greatest brand, the greatest property, the best writers, the best directors and beautiful designs. If you don’t get it out there, it doesn’t do any good. By the same token, you can have the greatest distribution system in the world, but if you don’t have the right content to put on there, you’re not going to get the eyeballs. You need both. That’s what drew us to taking command of our future and building our own channel. You can stunt it, you can promote, you can do all kinds of maneuvers that you wouldn’t have the wherewithal to do if you’re just a singular producer or if you’re a broadcaster that doesn’t own the content.”

Chizick added, “When you have that A-level content and you control that content, and you create a platform for that content to be on, and are able to share it and sell it into other markets, it really does change the game.”

The conversation then moved to the crucial role of content with educational value today, with many kids still home-schooling. To respond to the market’s needs, Genius Brands launched Kartoon Classroom! in the fall, delivering shows with academic agendas, Heyward said, among them Warren Buffett’s Secret Millionaires Club, which teaches financial literacy lessons amid fun and entertaining storylines. “In these times, with kids home from school, it is important to have some kind of content that can be enriching for the kids.”

Just as kids’ needs have changed amid the pandemic, the demands of advertisers have also evolved. “We’ve known for the last couple of years there’s been more and more of a shift to digital outlets and getting the right mix,” Chizick said. “In 2020, we saw that expedited well beyond where we thought it was. It gave our clients a lot of confidence in digital platforms and alternative methods of reaching the audience. And that changed the model of our business.”

Over the last two years, the company’s biggest investment as a media buyer was its creation of a research department so that it would have access to metrics beyond traditional providers like Nielsen and Comscore. “That has been the biggest asset to our clients. It’s taking all the data, all the insights, looking at every campaign we’re running and coming up with the secret sauce that is based on information, data and research. And the clients trust it.”

Heyward reiterated that ChizComm Beacon Media is the largest buyer of children’s media in North America. “The cumulative spend that Harold brings to the table is extraordinary. That opens up so many doors.”

ChizComm Beacon Media’s leading position comes from having a broad client base of toy companies, with varying levels of ad budgets available, and a cumulative approach to buying commercial air time, Chizick said. “We go into the networks and we say, We want to buy X number of commercials. We aggregate all of our client base of over 30 clients, so we’re able to get a much-preferred rate for those television commercials because we’re buying in such volume. That’s our advantage.”

On serving Genius Brands’ shareholders and audiences, Heyward said, “If we take care of our viewers, the shareholders will be taken care of automatically.

The discussion moved to the importance of aligning with A-level talent. Heyward talked about Genius Brands’ alliance with Shaquille O’Neal: “Everything he has touched has seen huge increases in their business. We developed our show with him and in fact he became a shareholder of the company; he was so excited about what we were doing together.”

Heyward also discussed Genius Brands’ affiliation with the late Stan Lee. “Five of the top-grossing 17 movies of all time were created by Stan Lee,” Heyward said. Last summer, the company announced Stan Lee Universe, a joint venture that holds the merchandising and licensing rights to Stan Lee and his post-Marvel IP, including his name, physical likeness and signature. “We will roll something very special out for Stan’s 100 birthday in December 2022,” Heyward said.

Heyward went on to note that the company’s management team and board of directors have been instrumental in helping the company to attract top-level talent. “We think a great deal about who we can attract to the company. Not just celebrities, but also important people who know how to execute,” alongside leading directors and writers. “We aim for excellence, whether it’s people in management or the creative field.”

Carugati asked Heyward about his close relationship with the late Stan Lee. “He was a mentor, a friend, a father figure, someone who I admired. We would write to each other every day by email. I have a book that was published of our pen-pal correspondence. I would get notes from him, so erudite you can’t imagine, in Latin, in foreign languages, quoting ancient Greeks. He was a magical person. I feel privileged that we are now the steward of his brand. There’s going to be extraordinary value coming from that for our shareholders, and joy and creativity for his fans.”

With Lee and Schwarzenegger, Genius Brands developed the new series Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten. “Stan was a big fan of Arnold’s,” Heyward said. “He thought Arnold was a superhero! I had the honor of introducing them when Arnold was just finishing his term as Governor [of California]. They decided they were going to create something together. Stan was a huge fan of Kindergarten Cop; he thought, Why don’t we do something like a Kindergarten Cop, but make them superheroes? The superhero marketplace is very crowded; Stan’s idea was, let’s tilt and make it for preschoolers. What would Batman, Superman, Spider-Man be like if they were 6-year-olds? That’s what these stories are. Arnold is a former superhero on the show. He teaches [his students] how to use their powers, and at the same time, brings along some positive lessons about health, exercise, nutrition. It’s full of fun and hijinks.”

Following the conversation, Schwarzenegger introduced a sneak peek at the show. “I’m sad that Stan isn’t with us anymore, but I’m honored that we’re bringing his vision to life,” Schwarzenegger said.