Agents of Success

While it's no secret that Marathon Production's Totally Spies has been an international hit on air, the licensing program now is taking off with more than 100 licensees and a variety of products.

Famous for producing such classic and traditional properties as Babar, Asterix, and Lucky Luke, France also is home to a production company making children's programming for a global audience. Marathon Production's biggest hit is Totally Spies, a hybrid of all-American action, comedy, and wide-eyed manga animation. Based on three schoolgirls from Beverly Hills moonlighting as spies, it is broadcast in 100 countries, and the fifth series is set to launch at MIPTV in April. License! Global caught up with Marathon's licensing manager, Patricia de Wilde, to find out more about the property's licensing strategy and plans for this year.

How does Totally Spies differ from other French TV properties?

What you would consider "French" in a property is probably quite different from the way we would characterize our French properties. I would say that from its original conception by Vincent Chalvon and David Michel, the show was created to be international in its appeal to children—both with its graphic style and the way the storyline unfolds. The show has brought a new animation style, bringing together the best of U.S.-style animation with the trendy Japanese animation that children around the world have grown to recognize.

The show has three strong female lead characters but is very action-oriented. To what extent is it a girls' property?

Totally Spies is one of the only TV shows in which the lead characters are three girls, but it still claims a large boy audience (50/50 on average). This gives the broadcasters the best of both worlds. After four years, Totally Spies continues to bring TF1, our free-to-air French broadcaster, its highest ratings on its children's programming. And this mixed-gender appeal is experienced in the same proportions around the globe. Still, there is no question that when it comes to licensing, Totally Spies is very much a girls' property.

Can you summarize the licensing strategy for Totally Spies?

We started in many countries by developing a strong publishing program. We needed that to install the brand outside of TV. When this is successful, it's the best way to start a good buzz at retail and raise awareness for the brand with parents who always favor buying publishing products for their children. Our experience is that girls start watching the show at age 4 and still enjoy it at 11. It's been challenging to adjust the licensing to the right target. We're now able to sell products to both ends of the spectrum, with more fashion items and role-play toys for the younger girls and more elaborate gaming products and publishing items for the older girls. The toy aspect of the license proved to be tricky, but we now have found the right angle with a large role-play line—the new trend in the toy business.

Our Totally Spies Websites (both our own and mini-sites featured on our broadcasters' sites) also have helped us build a strong link with our audience. Children can find games, VOD, an online store, and chat forums. We're also active with the mobile phone companies, offering downloadable games and extracts from the show.

Has the licensing strategy changed since the first series aired?

We first started to work with Totally Spies as a traditional girls' property that had to revolve around a doll line. But then we realized this segment was so competitive that we should not compete head-to-head with the other traditional licensed girls' properties, most of which don't come from an animated TV series. We had to go back to the show and work with what makes it so special and where the fun lies.

Besides publishing, what aspects of the show translate well into licensed products?

The high-tech gadgetry used by the Spies is a key element of the show. Girls love trying to replicate scenes from the show. Role-play toys such as the electronic compowder, or the walkie-talkie spyglasses from Goliath were our best-sellers at Christmas. We are expanding with more role-play and outdoor toys. The Spies are at ease with anything techie, thus, the early idea to develop a video game line (which is starting to grow), as well as other electronic licensed products. But still, as with any girls' license, the fashion element is important with many sportswear items, and successful shoe lines, luggage, back-to-school, and stationery licenses. In addition, promotions have been a strong asset. For example we've had three McDonald's promotions within four years in Europe and the Middle East, as well as in Southeast Asia.

Is the licensing program the same in each market?

Overall, the pattern is more or less the same. The core elements of the brand appeal in similar ways to girls everywhere. What is very different is the state of the local scene, and the quality of the local representation.

What does 2007 and beyond hold for Totally Spies?

We are delivering our fifth season of the show. With 130 x 26 minutes, that will be a record for a girls' TV series. This gives us all the material we need to work on a long-term licensing program. In the case of France, we'll have a huge presence at last in the toys and games category, with lots of new products such as a DVD-i board game. We're also working on large nationwide retailer promotions for the first time. Internationally, we are leveraging the success of our French licensing program to feed our licensing programs throughout the world. The seeds planted in Europe and Eastern Europe are promising, and Brazil is looking very bright, as are the Middle East and Asia, where there are so many opportunities to reach girls.

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