National Post (Latest Edition)
Success in bits and Bites
When Wendy Gardner moved from Toronto to make her name in the dog-eat-dog world of the New York City art scene, she had no idea she would end up building a brand that would be sold around the world. Although she still paints, her real success has been in parlaying her creative skills into Scary Stories Inc., a global business that started with plush toys and has grown to include pet toys, clothes, accessories, school supplies, children’s books and an animated series.
Ms. Gardner relocated to New York in 1985 to study painting in the off-campus program offered by the Ontario College of Art and Design. “I wanted to be a famous artist, and it was the best place to be if that’s what you wanted to do,” she says.
Her first few years in New York were typical of a struggling artist — painting, schmoozing at gallery openings and making a tenuous living running a framing business. However, when the art market went into a slump, her framing clients vanished and she found herself looking for other ways to pay her hefty New York rent.
It was the 1990s, and the Internet was becoming big business. So Ms. Gardner turned to graphic design for Web sites. In her spare time she was busy creating a series of animal characters that would become the foundation of Scary Stories Inc.
The first Scary Stories product was a stuffed dog named Vicious French Bulldog, who, like all her animals, would be immortalized by an accompanying poem: “So huffily puffily snuffily gruff, why does everybody think you’re so tough?”
She sewed the first Bulldog on the spur of the moment. “I made the first of the toys as a present for somebody, and then I made a bunch more for an art party I was going to. I made 12 and sold them in about a minute.”
Ms. Gardner soon discovered there was a pent-up demand for her eccentric menagerie. “Everybody wanted to buy them, so I got into a few stores just by going out and asking.”
She created more animals based on neighbourhood pets, including Bite Me Bobo and Naughty Naughty Kiefer, and soon demand was outstripping supply.
In 1997, she was still a one-person cottage industry operating out of her New York apartment, and she sewed more than 500 toys in the first few months after Bulldog hit the market. Ms. Gardner’s initial success was entirely through wordof-mouth marketing, but her big break came two years later with an order for 1,000 toys from Delias, a catalogue company that markets to young girls. To deal with the increased volume, she turned over the manufacturing to a factory in Pennsylvania (the toys are now made in China), and, with the sewing out of her hands, she incorporated and expanded her sales into Europe and Canada.
“I was doing licensing by myself, but when I got an agent, the whole thing jumped to a different level,” Ms. Gardner says. In 2000, a licensing agent in Japan introduced her to fertile new ground for sales in Asian markets. She brought on DRi Licensing in Europe and the Sharpe Co. in the United States, and sales of her plush toys branded name Naughty Naughty Pets, started to take off. Ms. Gardner also began a successful line of pet toys called Cheeky Squeaky Pets for Nylabone.
In 2001, Ms. Gardner branched out into books. “The whole time I was doing these characters and making funny names I was also making graphics and writing poems about them, and that’s how the book deal came about. I exhibited the poems and graphics at the trade shows, and that’s how I got the interest of publishers.” Ms. Gardner signed a contract with Hyperion Children’s Books and published four children’s books under the Naughty Naughty Pets name.
In the same year, she also secured a collaboration deal with hip designer Paul Frank to use her designs on Franks’ clothes and accessories, a move that exposed the Naughty Naughty Pets brand to a whole new market. Last year, an Easter promotion called Bunny Business in more than 1,500 Target stores across the United States featured seven “hip, quirky” bunnies specially designed for the retailer. For six weeks the brand decorated everything from clothing, Easter baskets and toys to home decor and stationery, with e-card tie-ins on Target’s Web site.
One of the biggest lessons Ms. Gardner learned along the way was that you had to listen to your audience. “I wanted the characters to be iconic and mysterious, like Paul Frank’s, but our licensees wanted to include text to help people get to know the characters.” She was reluctant at first, but the approach enabled her to take the characters to a TV cartoon.
The Sharpe Co. had been hunting for a TV deal since it signed on with her. And in 2004, Ms. Gardner struck a deal with Toronto’s DeCode Entertainment to produce a series of three-minute animated shorts based on her characters. “All the cartoons are made in Canada, which is great for me because I get to come to Toronto and work on the show,” says the one-time resident of the city. Ms. Gardner describes the cartoons, in which she sings under the pseudonym Windy Woo, as being “for older kids. It’s a little edgy, but it’s not South Park.”
The cartoon, which airs worldwide, is on CBC in Canada and The Cartoon Network in the United States.
Although Ms. Gardner runs the business out of New York, she contends she would have done just as well in Canada. “I kind of ended up here accidentally. It’s convenient because it’s close to the major trade shows for the North American market, but I could do it anywhere.”
She says the secret of her success is to focus on one idea but also to evolve. And while she employees two graphic artists, she maintains licensing approval rights over their ideas. “I’ve been working on this project for the past 10 years, and I’ve always tried to respond positively to criticism and suggestions and give the licensees and retailers what they want while maintaining artistic integrity. The ultimate goal is a property that will last. Acting like a prima donna — that doesn’t seem to work.”