January 15, 2009

Mr Private Equity And Little Miss Licensing

mr_men_grid.jpg

I guess I didn't grow up in an Anglophilic enough house, because I didn't know about Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men and Little Miss series until the kid was born. [The wife, on the other hand, had them at school. New York City.]

Anyway, while I first thought the characters were cute and quirky, I find the books themselves impossible to read. Hargreaves' voice is so distinct, and wordy, and the stories are so moralistic. Maybe it's fine if you have a British accent, but I just get exhausted.

Ever since 2004 when a big new rack of books popped up in the checkout lines of Borders, it seems there's been a massive snowballing of the Mr Men and Little Miss brand. Now there's a TV show, 80+ 200+ merchandise licensees, Which is odd, because the books are clearly the product of one guy; there's no way they could have been produced by a giant media corporation. Could they? It made me want to find out more about Mr. Roger Hargreaves.

mr_tickle.jpgWell, first off, the 1971 copyright in our 1998 copy of Mr Bump is assigned to Mrs. Roger Hargreaves. Mr. Hargreaves passed away in 1988. Unlike Babar and Thomas, which grew out of family bedtime stories, Hargreaves got the idea for the first Mr. Men when his son Adam asked him what a tickle looked like. Versions of the story differ on whether Adam was 6 [i.e., 1969] or 8 [i.e., 1971] when this occurred, which matters only because it means either the concept came to Hargreaves in an instant, or he noodled around on a book idea for a couple of years. From what Adam said in 2004, though, it sounds like his dad had been kicking around for a licensable, extendable cash cow for a while:

"It wasn't just writing books for us as kids. It just evolved from that. He sat down and wanted to create an idea that would give him a lifestyle and way of living that he wanted.

"He had seen what had happened with strip cartoons in the sixties, the likes of Snoopy and that kind of thing, that you could take characters and they could become commercially successful."

Which is what began happening on August 10, 1971, when Hargreaves published Mr. Tickle and five other titles, [Messrs Greedy, Happy, Nosey, Sneeze, and Bump], followed in November by Mr. Snow, a Christmas tie-in. Another batch of titles hit the market in 1972. The books took off, sold a ton. Hargreaves sold the TV rights, and in 1975 a series of animated shorts debuted on the BBC. He began licensing the characters around very early, and by 1976 Hargreaves had quit his ad agency job to write and illustrate books full time.

He added Little Miss in 1981. Another TV series appeared. Just as he planned, the characters were easily translatable into foreign languages, so they were. By the time of his sudden death in 1988, Hargreaves had created 79 Mr Men and Little Miss titles. Afterward, his son Adam, then in his mid-20's, started publishing new titles [shades of de Brunhoff again], and added ten new characters, including four "inspired by work Roger Hargreaves had produced before his death."

A third animated series aired in the UK from 1995-97, there was a Create A New Mr Men/Little Miss contest in 2001. The DVD's of the original 1975 BBC cartoon were released in 2003. But in 2004, after realizing he couldn't max out the brand's potential working on it part-time from his farm in Kent, Adam sold all the rights to the characters to Chorion, a major TV production and licensing company, for £24 million, which he split with his mother Christine and his three siblings. [Adam continues to consult Chorion on the characters.] Chorion spent another £4 million buying back the TV and video rights.

Chorion owns the rights to Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler's works, and their children's division owns a whole slew of properties that you probably didn't realize were all in one corporate licensing pot: Eric Carle, Beatrix Potter, Paddington, Olivia, Max & Ruby, Noddy, the Octonauts--and those are just the ones that blew my mind.

mr_men_classic.jpg

Mr. Men/Little Miss is at the top of Chorion's brand properties list. It's available in both Classic [for the kidults!] and Children's formats, the latter of which is being supported by the all-new The Mr Men Show, which Chorion bills as "the first animated show to bring sketch comedy to young children" and "a side-splitting, fast-paced refreshing addition to the children's media landscape."

Based on the original Mr. Men and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves, The Mr. Men and Little Miss children's line is a fresh contemporary style designed to re-imagine the property to appeal to today's children. Some of the characters have been refreshed and some completely re-worked - but all remain true to the essence of the original creations. With a super-saturated colour palette, rich new designs and environments, the children's line is a welcome new addition to the sensationally popular brand.
The toy launch [master toy licensee: Mattel] began in the UK last fall, and will hit the rest of the world in time for Holidays 2009.

In 2006, as the Mr Men Little Miss juggernaut was gaining speed and The Mr Men Show went into production [it's produced by the creators of Rugrats], Chorion was taken private in a £111 million management buyout, which was backed by the private equity group 3i. Chorion's CEO is Lord Waheed Alli, a TV producer and entrepreneur who was just 34 when he was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 1998. Alli's production companies were leading suppliers for the UK's Channel 4. His partner Charlie Parsons [partner in both senses of the word] is credited with creating Survivor, which first aired in Sweden in 1997 [no UK network wanted it.]

So yeah, your Children's Industrial Complex at work. The original books still sell around 8 million copies/year worldwide.

Now be a good lad and shop for Mr Men and Little Miss stuff at Amazon [amazon]
Roger Hargreaves [wikipedia]
Mr. Men and List of Mr. Men and List of Little Miss [wikipedia]
Waheed Alli, Baron Alli [wikipedia]
Chorion [chorion.co.uk]
Building up the Mr Men empire was strictly business for Roger Hargreaves [telegraph.co.uk]

10 Comments

"He sat down and wanted to create an idea that would give him a lifestyle and way of living that he wanted."

Well done then. Makes me want to take a crack at it. I sure would like to have the way of living that selling 8 million books a year (plus the other miscellaneous licensing royalties) would provide.

Cool post Greg, thanks for the research.

Fascinating. Especially the global oligarchy of children's characters

I think I remember these books in elementary school, the 80s, Milwaukee. But I haven't bought any reissues for my kids because I don't remember them as great fun--they were assigned, maybe?

We have the French translations of a few of these around the house. So I can't speak to the tone or readability of the English versions, but the French text is a quick and easy read (well, for French speakers, anyway...). Our two-year old and her short attention span get through the whole story without any trouble, but they've never been a favorite of hers, or something she asks to have read with any regularity.

I have great memories of these from growing up. The one I don't remember is 44: Mr. Guilty. Whoever photoshopped that one in should have at least taken the time to line up the text...

heh, I just assumed it was the son's creation, the Mr Men exploitation equivalent of "Babar Does Yoga".

Hmmmm. Can I use this information in some way to justify my dislike of the Mr. Men series while at the same time still really liking the Octonauts?


Hmm, okay, looks like Meomi just sold 'em the TV licensing rights. I can live with that.

sure, that's what I did.

The Mr. Guilty #44 is a cartoon of OJ Simpson and is not an original Mr. Men.

Hi,

Just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading your article on the Mr Men. It brought back some very fond memories. I was born in 1978, and therefore started school in '82. Which ment that the Mr Men craze was in full effect!

I loved getting in from school and watching the cartoon. They always had some sort of moral storey. Kids today need something like the Mr Men or something with a strong moral message.

I agree with one comment earlier, about maybe you need a british accent. Certainly the cartoon series had a very pronounced english accent. In fact I think it was Capt. Mannering from "Dads Army" whom provided the voice? I might be wrong on that one!

Anyway great research, keep up the great work.

Lol i Love Gay people! =D

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