Richard Dickson On Mattel’s Transformation

CANNES: In a keynote speech at MIPTV, which was followed by a Q&A with World Screen’s Anna Carugati, Richard Dickson, Mattel’s president and COO, talked about creating engaging content and success strategies at the company.

Dickson accepted the MIPTV Brand of the Year Award ahead of his keynote at the market in Cannes.

“Mattel was built on content and media,” Dickson said of the 70-year-old company, founded in a garage in Southern California as Mattel Creations. “I believe our best days are ahead of us.”

At its inception, Mattel was “inventing revolutionary new ways for kids to play. Mattel’s founders understood that in a world where kids were increasingly engaged by media, toys would have to tell engaging stories.”

Television advertising was a key focus for Mattel in its early days, a risky move given that the medium was still in its infancy. “Mattel created the first television advertising for kids, rooted in kid-targeted stories that brought these toys to life. Mattel Creations has always been content optimized. These were open-ended brands that could continuously evolve and live in a wide range of environments and scenarios.”

Dickson went on to note that the company became comfortable with its success and repeated what worked. “We essentially devolved into a packaged-goods company that made toys, losing that entrepreneurial, creative invention that started the company. The 30-second commercial for kids that was so innovative at the time became so much a part of our culture that we could not look beyond it. Our media became focused on tonnage, rather than innovation. Mattel essentially lost its way for a little while.”

Dickson was enlisted to “create the next chapter of innovation at Mattel.” The process began with understanding what made Mattel great in the first place.

In today’s media revolution, kids are able to “discover and make choices…. Kids are naturally suited to a media-intensive world. They’re natural actors. They’re eager and able to find solutions. They are passionate about media and storytelling. And today they can curate their own experiences and configure their own worlds. This is the first generation of kids who think and play like producers. They expect their toys to come to life in every dimension: on TV, online, in apps, in games, in theme parks and movies. That’s creating a whole new universe of opportunity.”

Dickson continued, “When kids choose toys today, they’re essentially casting characters for all the stories that they connect with.”

Before a brand can capture the creative potential of media, “the brands must be healthy and relevant. To be honest and candid, many of our brands weren’t ready until now.”

Dickson went on to showcase examples of how Mattel has reinvented its key brands, including Barbie. “We introduced new Barbie dolls with unique skin tones, 14 different facial sculpts, 18 different eye colors and even more hair styles, hair colors and fashions.”

The company also developed Hello Barbie, which “answered girls’ requests to have an interactive conversation with their doll.”

In addition, Barbie’s figure changed, a move that made headlines across the globe. “We have tall, petite, curvy, joining the classic, original Barbie.”

Plus, there’s a line of Barbie dolls inspired by “modern heroines,” with one based on Misty Copeland coming out this year.

“Innovations like this brought new relevance and attention to the Barbie brand.”

Dickson said that because “relevance must be cultivated daily, the immediacy of media and content will play an even greater role in managing all of our brands going forward.”

He said that the company also had to devise new strategies to make the Fisher-Price brand relevant to Millennial parents. Hot Wheels is also evolving, Dickson said, into a “content-intensive play system.”

“While we’ve been reinventing these brands one by one, we’ve also been carefully studying the media landscape, we’re evaluating our resources, our talent, we’re carefully considering what’s working for others, what’s working for us, what’s not working, what’s emerging? Where can we invest, enhance and innovate?”

Dickson discussed the creation of a unified global content arm, Mattel Creations. “It’s perfectly reflecting our new perspective on content as well paying homage to the heritage of that original content revolution 70 years ago in that garage.”

Discussing Mattel’s plans for the future, Dickson said that the company is making the consumer its top priority, “connecting them to the unique purpose of each one of our brands more directly and meaningfully. We’ve invited our fans to inspire us and co-create with our brands.” It is also “approaching content holistically” and “looking across our portfolio for opportunities to connect our brands to each other and of course to the journey of childhood.” Dickson said Mattel also wants to “continuously discover new ways to extend our content beyond what’s familiar, beyond long-form TV formats and animation models.” Another key priority is partnerships. “Mattel is much more collaborative and advantageous than ever before.”

Following his keynote, Dickson was joined on stage by World Screen’s group editorial director, Anna Carugati. She began the Q&A session by asking how Mattel is providing beloved brands and characters on digital platforms and mobile devices.

“Kids are early adopters,” he said. “They’re incredibly savvy. It’s incredibly important for companies like ours, which are about traditional play, that we integrate our content into storytelling on digital mediums. We need to be where our consumer is. Any brand today needs to be where their consumers are. And their consumers are everywhere.”

Carugati spoke about her own memories of her first Barbie and asked Dickson about the thinking that went into the recent changes to the iconic doll. “There’s a lot of secret sauce behind the Barbie brand. But there’s no doubt that it’s very difficult to keep a fashion doll relevant for 57 years. Part of Barbie’s history, if you look back at it, is she was always a reflection of what was happening in fashion and pop culture. If you look at Barbie over time, she’s a really interesting historic way of looking at what was fashionable, what was going on in the culture. We tried to inspire girls to imagine that through their drive they could be anything. What we’ve done today is embrace the DNA of the brand. What makes Barbie relevant today? She needs to look like what women look like today.”

Asked about his message to international content creators interested in working with Mattel, Dickson said, “We’re not shy and we can’t do what we do on our own. Those days are long gone. We are embracing creativity in our own house and with open arms out in the community. We put as one of our most important strategic goals to be best-in-class partners. What we can do at Mattel with the resources we have and the instant connection from a global perspective—distribution, content, marketing, media, product development—it’s astounding.”