Cards, calendars, toys… Joel Mercer on plans for his License This-winning brand, SeedFolk

To find out more about the origins of SeedFolk and where the award-winning brand is looking to go, we caught up with Joel Mercer.

The winners of the 2021 Kelvyn Gardner License This! competition were revealed at last month’s Brand Licensing Europe show.

Winning the Character & Animation category was SeedFolk – a range of characters who care for our native habitats and wildflower seeds – created by Joel and Sarah-Jayne Mercer.

To find out more about the origins of SeedFolk and where the award-winning brand is looking to go, we caught up with Joel.

Joel Mercer, SeedFolk, Kelvyn Gardner License This!, Brand Licensing Europe

Joel, it’s great to catch up. Before we talk SeedFolk, we actually first met a few years back when we you were a university lecturer. Your illustration students did some incredible work on a board game art brief.
Yes! Within my former role as an educator, I was looking for live brief opportunities and we met through this guise at one of your Mojo Nation conferences. The subsequent tabletop gaming project we ran together was towards the end of my time as a university lecturer, and I was feeling the pull towards being a practitioner once more.

You wanted to return to being an illustrator?
Well, for me there is a correlation between my fulfilment as a practitioner, in my case as a freelance illustrator, and how much support I am able to offer as a tutor. There are many well-known teacher/practitioners; Quentin Blake and Tolkien being two that sprang to mind who managed to balance these two elements.

After several years supporting hundreds of students, I was depleted and frustrated, and wanting a final shot at getting my art out there again. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. It is an honour to be able to mentor and nurture young talent, but those opportunities are few and far between. The turning point for me came during a talk from a well-known publisher. Standing in the audience with my students, hearing about the success of their author/illustrators, I knew that I needed to make a change.

Simultaneous to this, my wife, Sarah-Jayne, began to see her company – Seedlings Cards & Gift – seriously outgrow its humble roots. So, in September of 2020, she signed a lease for her first shop and I resigned my position.

A big move! And one that has led us to SeedFolk. So for anyone who missed the Kelvyn Gardner License This competition at Brand Licensing Europe, can you talk us through what the SeedFolk brand is and where it came from?
We have often been asked by customers for a children’s card range, and we have discussed this over the years, considering what kind of approach we would take. SeedFolk nestles under the parent company; my wife directed the project while I generated ideas and concept developments.

Eventually, after a lot of trial and error, SeedFolk emerged, consisting of a fun and lovable range of characters caring for and guarding our native wildflower seeds and flowers. Each character is named after the flower they protect, borrowing characteristics and qualities from that flower, both in terms of how they grow, but also in their ancient medicinal uses.

At the heart of the property, we are concerned with conservation, specifically for our native pollinators who play such a vital role in the wildflower eco-system. The core value we want to communicate through SeedFolk is a love and appreciation of nature, via the characters relationship with wildflower species and the cycles of the seasons.

We also believe that at this time of world-wide crisis, it is more important than ever to install positive values within our children. To give them an environment and experiences that help them to feel safe and positive about themselves and the future. That is why we are encouraging a feeling of fun, adventure, but also safety within the messaging of SeedFolk.

Joel Mercer, SeedFolk, Kelvyn Gardner License This!, Brand Licensing Europe

Great stuff. And it’s not just me who thinks so; a panel of judges did too and that saw you win your category of License This! A big congrats. What prompted you to apply for the competition?
We became interested in whether we could license our ideas, and so in October 2020 I attended Brand Licensing Europe. Despite it being a virtual tradeshow due to the pandemic, I had an insight into the industry, including a meeting with Kelvyn Garden of Asgard Media. He pointed me in the direction of the License This! competition. After his untimely passing, the competition was renamed in his honour and it was touching to meet his family at the event.

Joel Mercer, SeedFolk, Kelvyn Gardner License This!, Brand Licensing Europe

And did you get a chance to check out the wider BLE show after the competition?
I had a bit of a whistle stop tour of the show as I was only there for a few hours, but I felt immediately at home and found the licensing community to be very friendly and welcoming. I would like to thank Ian Downes, the BLE team and the judges; I look forward to getting to know everyone more as we go on our licensing journey.

It was a great show and I wanted to spend a lot longer with some of my favourite brands, such as Asterix, Moomins, Smurfs, Aardman, Cartoon Saloon, and many others. I also finally met George Mackay, the winner in my category last year who had a fantastic stand with his Eejits IP, as well as Tracey Colliston of Ginger Betty and Drew Bristow of Carrot and Toast. I can’t wait to unveil our plans at our SeedFolk stand at Brand Licensing Europe in September 2022.

Product-wise, where do you see SeedFolk soaring? And can you talk us through some of the products you’ve already created for the brand?
Via the parent company, we plan to launch a range of cards, yearly calendar and potentially a few other products in 2022. We have also started work on a book, the release of which is time dependent.

From the outset, we wanted to the characters to be somewhat toyetic, so I would like to work towards realising an environmentally friendly toy.

Additional to this, we believe that the values and messaging of SeedFolk is very needed at this time, and so we would like to pitch the brand towards becoming something more widely known, such as an animated series.

Joel Mercer, SeedFolk, Kelvyn Gardner License This!, Brand Licensing Europe

All sounds very exciting. We’re covering a lot of live experiences based on brands; things like escape rooms, exhibitions and farm trails. Could you see SeedFolk being a natural fit for some kind of live experience?
Given the interactive element of seed collecting, we can very much see a SeedFolk nature trail being both educational and important as an experiential event, encouraging future generations to appreciate and care for our beautiful natural environment. We are developing other initiatives with SeedFolk, but I shall keep those under wraps for now.

Yes, let’s not give too much away! Joel, before I let you go, one final question: How do you fuel your creativity?
For me, creatively is an openness to ideas. Inspiration can come from anywhere and anything, and so a notebook is the first port-of-call when it comes to capturing ideas in a safe space. However, conversely, limitations are vitally important. Like a funnel, I often start big and gradually narrow down as the project develops.

One tool that I advocate is to step into the role of the client. I write myself a brief at various stages in the creative process. This provides impetus even if the end destination changes along the way. The more confused or lost I feel within a project, the more I try to define what I am trying to do.

I see the creative process as a triangulation of approaches. Although it can be formulated, I prefer to see it as a wheel that is constantly in motion. Like orienteering, I try to gradually narrow in on the destination by taking measurements, coordinates and trying different approaches.

Of course, there are many failures, and it is also a skill to know when to shelve the project… But as they say ‘art is never truly finished, merely abandoned’. The challenge when an idea isn’t coming together is the feeling that you aren’t getting anywhere, like being in a dark tunnel. The answer I have found is to not give up, to keep experimenting and eventually the light at the end of the tunnel begins to emerge.

All great advice. Well congratulations again Joel on the win for SeedFolk – I look forward to seeing where it goes in 2022.

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