Dynamo’s Steve Richards on storytelling, problem-solving and creativity in licensing

Steve Richards – MD of the creative studio Dynamo – tells us about his route into the brand space, and what keeps his creative fires burning.

Steve, it’s great to connect. Let’s start at the beginning – how did you find yourself working with brands?
I trained as a graphic designer, mostly design for print, but when you come out of education, you realise you have no clue what your chosen industry is about or what your role might involve. With brands, and licensing in particular, I didn’t know it existed as a specific area of business, nor of the creativity surrounding it!

In one of my first jobs, I worked as a designer in a small marketing and advertising agency who had some really high-profile brands as clients, like Ford, Volvo and Redken, the haircare and cosmetics brand. This was my introduction to brands, the rulebooks that had to be followed when working with them and the importance of respecting brand identity at all times!

“Our regular clients know they can pick the phone up and no matter what creative needs they have, we are always there to support them.”

We worked a lot in the trade press where everything was quite dry and lacking humour, but then got the chance to work on a campaign for a car leasing company who really wanted to stand out as something different and unique compared to the competition. Our proposal was based on a series of illustrations highlighting their particular USPs in a humorous way, giving their prospective customers the chance of ‘winning’ the original artworks.

Working with a copywriter and cartoonist and illustrator, Graham Thompson – who has since created the WASGIJ? Puzzle art for Jumbo – we came up with ‘creative’ interpretations of the USPs. It was a really fun project to work on and the combination of humorous but impactful storytelling in both words and pictures not only worked brilliantly but also got me hooked. All I needed to then do was find a job and area of the industry that meant I could do a whole lot more of the same!

And that led you to CLiC!?
Yes, I saw an advert for Studio Manager at CLiC! – The Character Licensing Illustration Company! Run by Mick Wells, who a lot of people will know.

CliC! was an independent creative services studio working exclusively with brands and characters. I think I got the job because when Mick ran through their portfolio I could name every character in there – being a big kid at heart actually counted as a positive, and hopefully still does!

“We’re storytellers, and telling stories is at the root of creativity in our industry, even when it comes to brands that aren’t character driven.”

Around 80% of the work we did – at least in the early years until ‘Turtles’ hit and took over the world – was with Disney. In those days, style guides didn’t really exist in the form we know now, so all you got to work with was a logo and some animation sketches. Everything we worked on had to be created from scratch, whether that was original character art, creative direction and styling, themes and product concepts.

It was hard work, but we had a great relationship with Disney’s UK team and we worked really closely and collaboratively with licensees developing bespoke ideas, products and graphics that were pretty much unique every time. The Nineties were an incredibly creative and fun time to be involved in the industry.

You now run your own creative studio in Dynamo. I’m looking at your line-up of services and you guys do so many different things – project management, packaging, animation, character design, style guides, concept creation… the list goes on! So, here’s a tough one, how would you describe Dynamo in a nutshell?
Ha, it is a tough question and whenever we’re asked, we tend to say we do pretty much everything – which isn’t always a satisfying answer as it makes it sound like we don’t have specific skills or experience in any one particular area. However, if you look at the work we’ve done over the years, you can see that we have both, in abundance, in all the areas you mention – plus some!

Our aim is to be as creative and ‘useful’ as possible for our many clients, so we’ve developed and adapted our skills and services accordingly. It does mean that we’ve been able to work on a huge range of fantastic, incredibly varied projects over the years and we are constantly learning new skills.

We see it as a real strength, as this means we have transferable skills, experiences and knowledge that can be applied to every project we work on. Our regular clients know they can pick the phone up and no matter what creative needs they have we are always there to support them. Sorry, that’s a pretty big nutshell I know!

No, that’s a great run-down! Expanding on that, what’s a good example of work you’ve done that sums up some of Dynamo’s strengths?
During lockdown we collaborated with Rainbow Productions on character development for a mascot for a major up-coming sporting event. The development process was quite complicated and involved as there were a lot of elements that needed to be considered, including the ability for the character design to work as a mascot costume. We created 3D animated sizzles for the introduction of the character and the event launch, as well as 3D asset art and vector art for the event’s partners and licensees.

During this time we’ve also completed eight new PJ Masks trend guides for eOne, who we’ve been working with for quite a few years now on this and other brands like Peppa Pig and Ricky Zoom.

Again what’s great working with the team there is that we work not only on ever-changing and evolving themes and graphical and illustrative styles for the guides – over 25 different trend guides for PJ Masks so far! We also work right across the board on branding, concepts, presentations, packaging, 3D art and vector art for both the licensor and their licensees.

Steve Richards, Dynamo

Our 3D and animation capabilities have also really developed over the last few years and it’s proven to be one of the most useful tools in the Dynamo toolkit, allowing us to support the ever-increasing need for brand owners to create and supply large quantities of complex 3D assets to their licensees. It can also be used to develop and animate product, new concepts and IP, and is invaluable in terms of the impact it creates in promoting and supporting sales and marketing campaigns.

You’ll work on briefs that are packed with creative constraints and some that offer more freedom. Have you got a preference?
We like both; we find the entire creative process challenging, interesting and inspiring. From a Licensor/IP owner perspective, we like projects where we can get involved early on in helping to create the concept, like coming up with IP ideas, story arc, early character development or product visuals. We also like seeing it through every step of the process, from style guides right the way through to working with licensees on their new product development.

“The industry is constantly maturing and growing, meaning that there are more players involved and more people taking the industry seriously.”

We’re storytellers, and telling stories is at the root of creativity in our industry, even when it comes to brands that aren’t character driven. Having a story to tell and constantly reinforcing the consumer messaging is what makes a brand a brand. I think having a strong and clear story means more to people these days because entertainment brands can come and go so quickly.

How key is great design to successful brand extensions?
While great design helps massively, it has to be matched to a story or message of real clarity and quality. That said, ultimately, it’s the consumers that decide what will work and endure. And I love that. It’s not really our choice. It’s humbling!

We always do our best to give any new concept or brand the best possible chance at success in a crowded marketplace with trend-led ideas and design, which in turn helps influence consumer choice.

What helps fuel your creativity?
The continual, ever evolving, creative challenge. Every job is a new challenge, and we approach it like it’s our first. We draw on our experience, and analyse every project on its own merits, asking the right questions and understanding exactly what is involved and the end objective for the client and the brand. The process keeps us on our toes and the creative fires burning. It’s impossible to get complacent but it’s also what makes it fun too!

The other hugely inspiring influence for me is being surrounded by the enthusiastic, brilliantly creative, and diversely experienced ‘Dynamites’ who are at the heart of Dynamo and all the work we do.

‘Dynamites’ – nice! Steve, thanks for taking time out for this. One last question: Do you feel the industry is in a good place creatively at present?
I think it is. The industry is constantly maturing and growing, meaning that there are more players involved and more people taking the industry seriously. Competition is therefore fierce and the intensity and focus in all areas are necessarily rising, as are the quality and creativity of design and product development.

Thanks Steve! Appreciate you making time.

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