Gary Pope, Co-founder of Kids Industries, talks grit, glamour, values, LEGO and more

With clients including Kellogg’s, Disney, WWF and Tesco, Gary Pope discusses the licences and values he holds.

With clients including Kellogg’s, Disney, WWF and Tesco, Gary Pope discusses the licences and values he holds.

Gary Pope, thank you for making time. Your character wall, showing the characters you’ve worked on, is incredible. But what is it that Kids Industries actually does?
Well, first: thank you for having me. We’ve been doing what we do for twenty years, and Deej, it’s only in the last few years that we’ve worked out what it actually is that we do!

I’m glad it’s not just me! Shall we work it out?!
I’m being flippant but in part it’s true. We’re not “boxable”… When I started the company with my wife, Jennifer, we wanted to be able to do all the things we wanted to do – things we thought would make a difference. But the received wisdom is you take a niche and stick to it. Well, our niche is making brands stronger in the family market – in any way we can. Which means we’ve had to become expert in lots of different things.

For example?
We solve problems for our clients, and to do that we’ve nurtured a very mixed skill-set team of strategists, researchers, creatives, developers, business analysts and educationalists. In a world where you need a label, just one for us has been difficult to find.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Interesting. So how did you and Jennifer build the company?

We’ve built our business around three verticals: Insight, Strategy and Creative. We do our very best work when we go on a journey with our clients – working out what’s really at the heart of their need, building a strategic roadmap that will move their business forward and then executing against that strategy. Often, this means we’re doing things that haven’t been done in the family market before and we like that very much. So we’re a considered blend of an insight agency, a full-service marketing agency, a branding agency and an innovation agency.

Alright! And how do you do that?
Before we began KI, I was a teacher with a very keen interest in child development and pedagogy. It was drummed into us that all children are different, not only in terms of their personality and physicality but also cognitively. This is because, although all children experience the same developmental pathways, no two children experience them at the same time. During my teaching career, it was clear to me that if you fall back on this science you can build learning experiences and interventions that are relevant and effective. And so Jen and I knew very well that child development – keeping the child at the heart of everything we do – would be the basis of our success. We formalised this into what we call 4ft Thinking™. Our unique approach to seeing the world has always been through the eyes of children.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
So you’re always trying to empathise with children?

Absolutely. If you want to create anything for children, you need to know just what they’re capable of thinking, feeling and doing. So, we understand the psychology, sociology and biology of childhood very well indeed. In fact, before we do anything on a project, we look through these consideration lenses and build a bedrock of insight and understanding to build a solution on.

Now, the other side of the coin is of course the parents or significant adult in the child’s life… So just as you can define the science of childhood, we’ve developed our way of defining the science of Parenthood. We call it Parentsight™. Biology, Psychology and Sociology but then we add in the all important commercial aspect – Shopper Behaviour. It’s generally the parents that pay for things. These two techniques put together allow us to lock down all that can be known about the purchaser and user in the context of the client brief and have the foundation to find the answer to their problem.

“Before we do anything on a project, we look through these consideration lenses and build a bedrock of insight.”

If I were pitching you to strangers, what services would I say you offer?
Whatever it takes to deliver the right answer. Our core proposition gives the full range of insight services – both qualitative and quantitative, strategy and creative. This means we undertake huge global surveys or more modest local ones, we help train teams to think about the audience more, we build websites, apps, marketing programmes, we prepare franchise strategies, we develop new products, we design experiences and the list goes on. We are able to do this because we’ve developed a structure, a team and a skillset that can. If you want to connect with the family, in any way, we can help.

We called the company Kids Industries because we wanted to be able to impact the wide range of industries that want to connect with the family – and to do that we’ve had to develop a wide proposition that is always insight led and data driven.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
What values does Kids Industries have that inform the things you do on a day-to-day basis?

We believe that the inside has to be strong to make the outside strong. The values we hold dear as a business and culture guide and inspire us to do the best work, and find the best solutions for our clients. We have five paired values…

So five sets of two related values? What are they?
Open and Honest – our work is at the heart of our clients’ business. If we don’t tell it like it is – as we see it – then we’re not doing our job. We’re experts at what we do and are committed to being very, very honest. Sometimes this is difficult and can make for strong conversations but we are always coming from a place of how do we do the best we possibly can. And we’re just as robust with each other…

Our leadership team go at it hammer and tongs on a daily basis and I am so proud that we do. We care about each other and the work and by being robust but understanding each others’ point of view we get the best possible answer we can. We share a common understanding that, as all knowledge based organisations do, the truth is what is important.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Okay! Open and Honest…

Then, Learn and Grow – everyone here is an expert in at least two things… Our chosen specialism – the family market and our craft. We have a diverse range of crafts – researching, strategising, coding, designing, illustrating, writing, filming, animating… The list goes on. At KI, we make sure the team have the opportunity to develop themselves and their skills. We do this in lots of ways – training, conferences, shadowing and coaching. But my favourite is what we call BLT.

BLT, did you say?
Yes – Breakfast Learning Time. Each morning, right after the company-wide stand-up, one of us delivers a five-minute presentation about something that’s relevant, important or interesting to us. It gives us all an insight into each other, to learn something new and to practice our presentation skills. We take it in turns, but someone has done one every day since lockdown began and watch out for the book we’ll be releasing once this nonsense is done.

Next, Brave and Bold. We’re not afraid of doing things differently or of things that have never been done before. In fact we bloody love them! When you’re in the business of finding solutions you have to do things that haven’t been done before. Sometimes you need to be brave – to take the leap that might not work, to be understated, focused and considered. At others you need to be bold – direct, strong and very deliberate.

You’re differentiating between Brave and Bold where I think I many wouldn’t…
You’re right, and I think there’s a subtle difference between the two that – when applied properly –can help us reach the parts other agencies just can’t get to.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Interesting. I think that’s three pairs; what else?

We’re Responsible and Accountable – we take these to be two sides of the same coin, and we take them very seriously. We take responsibility for all our actions and we’re accountable to each other and to our clients. When we do something we commit to doing it, we own it and we take things very, very seriously. We offer a service, a service that we’re incredibly lucky to be able to offer, and one that – perhaps more importantly – we enjoy.

Last then, but presumably not least…
Last there’s Grit and Glamour! We dig deep to serve, and we do like to celebrate a job well done. There’s not been a great deal of glamour of late so we’re planning a big celebration as soon as lockdown is finally done. The grit is something of a trigger word. The past year has been hard for everyone and our team has really learned to get on with things as we’ve needed to.

I doubt anyone would argue with that, Gary, it’s been a testing time for even the most sturdy! So let me ask: when you’re considering a new client, what are you looking for? What qualities must they have for you to feel confident you’re able to help?
It’s a two way street this one, Deej. We know what we know, the client knows what they know. Our task is to pool our knowledge and get the best possible result for the client… So the qualities that we have and the qualities that a potential client has must sit alongside each other for the work to really sing. What we are being given is a huge responsibility. There must be trust between us and of course, trust is only ever earned. We take earning trust very seriously – if we don’t have it we can’t do our job – it’s that simple.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
And presumably it’s hard to square that with being brave and bold…

Well, sometimes – as is natural – people want to hold on very tight to what they know, and don’t have the courage to step into the unknown. Our job is to hold their hand as experts and make them realise that we know what we know and they know what they know and – together – we’re going to make something that’s bloody amazing. And that’s the starting point for every single project.

And there must be times, then, when you can see it’s not a great fit before things get underway?
Oh yes. There are times when we have to politely decline the opportunity to work on something, and when we choose to do that it is in everyone’s best interests. The foundation of any success project is the quality of the relationship. You can get through flood and fire and come through tighter than ever if the relationship is strong. Some clients are true collaborators while others are more stand back. Each is as valid as the other – it’s their project, so we flex to work in a way which works best for them to give the foundations of our relationship the very best opportunity to grow.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
So I’m curious… What are some red lines for you? What kind of work would you never touch?

Absolutely anything that in any way challenges the safety of children. And that comes in some very obvious ways and some very unexpected ways. I believe firmly in proper and just regulation for any area where children might be involved.

Can you give me an example of that?
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is marketing HFSS – High Fat Salt Sugar. Believe it or not, some manufacturers still try and get around the legislation and sail far too close to the wind. It really, really, really bothers me. Like, really?

Such as?
Over the years I’ve repeatedly struggled with misguided attempts to circumvent existing regulation. Cadbury’s recent Street Fighter promotion catches the attention. It’s clever and it’s a little bit dark, to me at least. But engaging parents and children to come together to support celebrity child and parent eSports teams that battle each other in Street Fighter is evil genius.

I’m not familiar with the ad, so in what way?
It’s relevant, it’s aspirational, it’s accessible and it keeps the brand at the heart of the comms. The subtext of the pitch for this IP was, I have no doubt, “We need a brand that parents love and a medium their children are most at home with”. This is an IP that children know, or, if they didn’t, do now – and the last time I looked using a children’s IP to sell chocolate was a bit iffy.

If anyone seriously thinks that this targeting wasn’t considered, planned and researched to within an inch of its life, they’re mistaken – and they do the advertising industry a huge disservice. There would have been laser-focused consideration before alighting on Street Fighter. The promotion is Youtube advertised, and we know 52% of children spend over 8.3 hours a week on there…

It’s also Twitch streamed – and there’s no data for under-thirteens, as they’re supposedly barred from the platform, but every study we do for that age puts it up there as a favourite. And it’s widely promoted across various channels. Is anyone seriously going to argue that this isn’t stuff that is going to connect children and chocolate in a meaningful way? Their PR will play it out differently but this is the reality.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
I can see you feel very strongly about this…

Absolutely right. We work in the most emotive sector of the marketing world – children and families. Childcentricity and putting family first is at the heart of what we do. So – to answer your original question – anything that even remotely challenges that is out of bounds for us.

Great answer! How does what you do apply to licensing?
Lots and lots of ways. It all depends on where we join the process. Often a brand owner has a property and they don’t actually know what it is they have – they know it works on TV and that children are watching it, but the reality is they don’t know why. You can’t make product that truly supports the brand if you don’t know why it connects with the children.

No; makes sense!
So we can deconstruct what it is they have – we have a tool that we use that plots 86 different dimensions of an entertainment IP across aesthetic, narrative, character, pace, play patters and a whole bunch of other aspects.

Wow! This is a system you’ve developed?
Right. And running an IP through this process pulls out the detail you need to get to the nugget that’s going to unlock the hearts and minds of the children – and the wallets of the parents. But – and it is a massive but – whatever recommendations we make will always be those that are right for the children.

Make it right for the children…
…and you get it right for the brand. We also manage social channels for IP clients, we make licensed apps, we deliver marketing campaigns, style guides, brand strategies… Basically, If you’ve got a licensed property and you want to do something with it to make it even stronger, then we’re here to help. Were proud to have worked with so many global franchises – from Peppa Pig and Hey Duggee through to Jurassic Park and Star Wars.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Great! You also work, do you not, on immersive experiences?

We’ve been creating immersive experiences for 20 years. In fact my own experience of creating experiences began while working as what was called an Experience Engineer shortly after leaving teaching. We’ve since built hotels, conceived themed restaurants, designed the interior of cruise ships, private island destinations, Family Entertainment Centres and playscapes for families.

And you recently worked on an extraordinary-sounding project for LEGOLAND… Can you walk us through that?
Helping the team at LEGOLAND build the new land in their theme park was really a pulling together of a lot of our experience to date. And so we got to work on Mythica – this is the largest capital expenditure project at LEGOLAND since the park opened. It’s a fantastical world where the LEGO creations of children come to life and play out a wonderful and inspiring narrative that hasn’t really been seen anywhere before.

It feels like I need to get along and research it properly!
Ha! You’re a fan?

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Absolutely. I need little excuse to head to LEGOLAND!

Well, as we speak, building is just about done so when the park opens shortly visitors are going to be blown away. I’m not going to spoil the story but its immersive and thorough and considered and just plain bloody exciting. I think it’s been executed particularly well and full credit needs to go to the Merlin team and our fantastic clients at LEGOLAND for that.

I’m genuinely excited! Ridiculous! So how did it come about? What did you do?
We were appointed because of some work we’d done in repositioning the LEGOLAND Discovery Centres. Our role was to develop and define the visitor experience alongside the various client team… So we bring the voice of the family to the table, and because we know how to tell stories, create toys and engineer experiences, we were able to add a great deal of value to the process.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Tell stories, create toys and engineer experiences… I like that!

We worked with 50 children and their parents through a process we call co-creation. We explored the story, the branding, the guest experience, how the rides would be wrapped into the overall experience and narrative. We developed the story that was a germ to start with and needed to be more aligned with the ways in which families would experience the park.

And what kind of thing is essential there?
One of the key things to achieve on the site was to ensure that the whole family had the opportunity to be engaged – LEGOLAND can skew a little young. I think we’ve done that and the results look amazing. I’m very happy with the execution – but the effectiveness we will have to wait and see what the audiences think!

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
I literally don’t want to wait! Okay… I wouldn’t normally ask this but how much of what you do, then, is number crunching and how much is creative inspiration?

One of the aspects that makes us unique is how we achieve the balance with exactly this. We’re super lucky in that Raj Pathmanathan, our creative director, is committed to insight and making sure everything that comes out of his team is deeply rationalised. Meanwhile, Jelena Stosic – our Strategy Director – is always one step ahead of the game creatively. Their working as the leaders of those functions in KI means we get the balance just right. I’m so lucky to have them… It’s very much a balance as the need of the project dictates.

Also, it’s not just numbers… It’s science too. Our commitment to understanding child development and consumer behaviours as sciences gives us a head start on any of our competitors. Our knowledge of the mechanics of story, the impact of aesthetic and the accumulated knowledge of our 30 people over the last 21 years means that for a little company we can pack a massive insight punch that can literally make the difference between success and failure for an IP. And that doesn’t mean that there’s not the occasional flight fo fantasy but there is always data or a standout consumer insight underpinning.

What areas would you like to explore if the right opportunity came along?
We’re so lucky that we’ve done just about everything from building hotels, to AR experiences, to designing global consumer products strategies and creating new children’s toothpastes. The projects where we break new ground and use the full power of our Insight, Strategy and Creative offering combined is where we really can make a difference.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
The right opportunities for us are the ones that have big ambition and challenge how things have been done to date.We’re not scared of anything. We’ve actually got some massive news on the horizon for the project we’ve been working on in absolutely secret for 18 months. But I’ll have to tell you about that one once it’s safe to do so…

What’s next for you?
A cup of tea!

You’re a man after my own heart! And after the tea?
World domination! We decided about two years ago to focus on geographic expansion using the same model – small expert teams rather then getting too big and unwieldy in one market. With that in mind, we’ve just launched our European network – The League.

Go on…
We’ve partnered with the the very best family focused agencies from Spain, Germany, Italy and France – you can read all about it at . We’re bringing big agency network clout with independent agency love to clients that want to make a splash across the region.

And, and this is a first, especially for you, Deej, we open in the US just as soon as Corona is done. Locations – East and West Coast: sorted! Boots ready to put on the ground. About 20% of our annual revenues come from the US and so if they’re coming over here to find us then we thought we’d like to make it easier for them. And this, with our existing office in South Africa, means we’ll be in three continents. Asia will follow.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries
Blimey! That’s amazing! Well congratulations. What a year for you!

Incredible times. We’re recruiting hard and growing fast… We’ve always been child focused and data led and we’re now taking our insight led approach to everything we do to a significantly higher global level. We’re here to help C-Suite execs make a significant difference to their business by being more meaningfully connected with their audience.

Gary, I thoroughly enjoyed this – thank you for spending so much time talking – I realise I’ve overrun massively! One last question… What’s the oddest, or funniest or most inspiring thing you’ve found yourself doing for your company / one of your brands?
What a lovely question! Let me think of one of each… The oddest, I think… Flying to the Bahamas for one day. We’ve been working on the guest experience at private island destination resorts for Royal Caribbean and I had to do a site visit – London to the Bahamas and back in 28 hours. Which included an hour long flight in a single-engine private plane… The type that goes missing in the Bermuda Triangle! And being patted down by the D.E.A. and sharing a lift with Gloria Estafan. I offset my footprint by the way.

Gary Pope, Kids IndustriesAnd sharing a lift with Gloria Estafan! Okay! Great!
Funniest…. I guess becoming the Abominable Snowman. We made a series of internal mini-documentaries for Warner Brothers all about the DNA of key franchises. One about Batman, one about Tom and Jerry and one all about Scooby Doo. I channel a blend of David Bellamy and Louis Theroux as a documentary maker. We explored the cultural significance of each of the properties. I dressed as various characters to deliver the insight, including the Abominable Snowman. And I’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids. You can see the video here if you’d like…

Most Inspiring – definitely creating Amazing Planet for WWF. Ever since I’ve been working with children – and that’s nearly 30 years – they’ve told me just how much they care about what’s happening to our planet. 30 years they’ve been shouting about this, Deej. And so when WWF asked us to create a brand new subscription product for Gen Alpha we were super-chuffed. Seeing the impact of your work is the most rewarding thing about what we do here.

Brilliant. Gary, thank you again for your time. If anyone wants to look you up where do they do it?
They can do so at – and Deej, thank you, and thank Brands Untapped for talking to me too. A real delight as ever.

Gary Pope, Kids Industries

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