WildBrain’s Deirdre Brennan, Guru’s Frank Falcone on Engaging Kids


Deirdre Brennan, the COO of WildBrain, and Frank Falcone, the president and executive creative director at Guru Studio, discussed navigating the complexities of the kids’ business in the last session of day two of the TV Kids Festival.

The conversation, which you can view here, was moderated by Anna Carugati, the group editorial director of TV Kids. She opened the session by asking Brennan and Falcone about the considerations that go into finding the right concept and moving it through development.

“We’re constantly looking for the thing that will stand out,” Falcone noted. “There’s always a constant push and pull between what we know works for children—and that can tend toward the pedantic and be obvious and insult a child’s intelligence—and moving toward something new, fresh, that a child hasn’t seen. That involves risk, and it’s much harder to bring to market. You’re looking for the sweet spot between those two. So nvothing too condescending to children and something that is fresh and was obvious all along, but we somehow missed it. It’s a hard thing to find.”

“Something to believe in,” said Brennan. “If someone believes in it for a children’s audience, that’s going to be the greatest thing.” But there are many other factors, Brennan said, including insights into audience behavior. “It’s also: What do our clients want? What is the capability of production? What’s the financial viability of these projects? What’s the platform fit? When you’re coming up with a content strategy and finding those projects, our role is to bring all of those factors into those decisions about what goes into development. It’s creativity as a business as well as that spark of, what is going to make a child smile?”

Given how quickly trends can shift, and animation’s long production timelines, committing to an idea can be tricky. “Animation has to speed up its ability to get to market because otherwise, your visioning for the future has to be that much stronger,” Falcone said. “You have to anticipate what [kids] might want to watch in those two or three intervening years from the pitch to completed project. It’s not easy. But heart and soul usually outlive the data to some extent, and the data can sometimes be a set of handcuffs on us. We have to be wary of that.”

Brennan noted, “We’re seeing people wanting to lean toward known IP because it feels like there’s more in the bank with that than something original. The struggle within our industry is trying to say, go for the original idea, go for something unique and interesting because it’s worth the swing. When there’s investment and reputations on the line, sometimes that can be more challenging. But in the fast-changing nature of children’s audiences, some trends work on a faster cycle, and they require short-term production time frames.”

Carugati asked the panelists about attracting and nurturing diverse talent. At WildBrain, there’s a set of content creation guidelines “with the aim of getting more diversity and inclusion on screen and off from the beginning of a project,” Brennan said. “They’ve also been doing a lot of workshops and initiatives around finding new talent, giving them the opportunity to gain experience.”

Falcone said that inclusion has long been part of the Guru company culture. Among the talents mentored at the studio is Ghanaian Canadian artist Gyimah Gariba, who created Big Blue. “He wanted to represent his family. His only request was, ‘I want the two lead characters to be Black.’ We wrote that into his agreement. It got through with CBC’s support, and we ended up with a beautiful show that is funny and true to his goals. It’s finding the human connection and avoiding too much ticking the boxes. That’s when you end up with unsuccessful content that actually has a negative effect on representation. There’s nothing worse than a show that ticks all the boxes for representation that nobody watches. It ends up just proving the point for the skeptics who say, ‘See, it doesn’t work.’”

The conversation then moved to the factors evaluated when finding the right platform for a property. “We’re careful to not pitch every project to everyone,” Falcone said. “It’s important to know what the project’s goals are, if something has an L&M component, if VOD is the right place—you have to think about those things.”

“There is such a level of knowledge now about what the [financing] model means for the future of a show,” Brennan added. “Before, it was more about the creative fit of it. Now, it’s part of development. What is the right home? Where can the show thrive? Where can it connect best to audiences? There are so many choices. The distribution mix is extraordinary. But often, it comes back to finding people who believe in what you’re trying to do and the story you’re trying to tell.”

When building a new brand, Falcone added, sometimes going with a global streamer for all rights isn’t the wisest move. “Sometimes it’s about ubiquity–seeing it in as many places as possible.” The streamers, he noted, still have limited audience reach. “For independent producers building shows that don’t have a legacy, it is important to get onto as many platforms as you can.”

The panelists then weighed in on the challenges of discovery today. “Discoverability came into our lives as a word four or five years ago. It’s as much of a challenge if not more so now,” Brennan said. “The line between distribution and marketing is so blurred now. Knowing the incredible opportunities we have through YouTube, the greatest connection to kids as a platform today, I have to use the distribution mix and all the tools I have to connect to kids wherever they are. Very few people have the marketing budgets at scale to cut through in the world we live in now. All that feeds into the distribution strategy from the very beginning. It’s connecting and engaging with audiences, not promoting to them.”

“We’re in the age of TikTok,” Falcone added. “YouTube is becoming a dusty bin of content as we speak, and TikTok is where the energy is. YouTube requires commitment. Playing and having fun is an important part of marketing. If your brand can be played with, then the marketing can take of itself. If it’s too top-down driven, too programmatic, you end up with a lot of marketing material, but is it reaching people and engaging people? Marketing has to be respectful of the audience. And since we can control both the content and the marketing, it’s a great opportunity to speak to the audience again. It’s a chance to continue the conversation with your audience.”

IP owners have had to take on more marketing responsibilities, Falcone added. “They can’t rely on the broadcast partners to do that for them. There’s too much in the market. You’ve got to take that responsibility seriously. You have to think about what’s going to make your kids’ show or characters stand out.”

“There’s no road map anymore,” Brennan noted. “Guerrilla marketing and opportunities to experiment, we still have that protection of children that underpins everything we do.”