Penguin Ventures’ David Sprei on creativity, collaboration and keeping classic brands fresh

David Sprei – Commercial Director at Penguin Ventures – talks us through his history in licensing, and how he fuels creativity.

David, thanks for making time for this. Let’s start at the beginning – how did you come to be working in licensing?
I started off in ‘ad land’ at TBWA\ London where I spent around four years working at STREAM – the brand entertainment agency managing a mix of clients including Nissan Europe, adidas, Playstation and Häagen-Dazs.

I then had an opportunity to move over to MTV Europe joining the International Brand Solutions Team. I was working on the live side, activating sponsorships and activations around our key tentpole events, like the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards and the EMAs.

And how did you become interested in consumer products?
In one particular year I was lead for the Headline sponsor of the EMAs – a new MTV headphone brand – and it was the first time that the CP team were bringing us a sponsor internally. We were making the product with the licensee, and they were our sponsor, so I was working very closely with the CP team.

“We always endeavour to work with the best in class, so we look closely at design credentials and creative approach.”

Throughout that project, I was fortunate enough to get to know Mark Kingston and Dan Frugtniet quite well and it turned out they were looking for someone to join the team in a commercial sales capacity to drive non-traditional licensing across the international markets – so I made the internal move, which was likened to when Sol Campbell left Tottenham and joined Arsenal!

Ha! And ‘non-traditional’ being…
I’d identified opportunities that didn’t fit into the hardlines or softlines categories such as partnerships, bespoke collaborations and experiential.  I was given free rein to deliver incremental revenue through multi-market deals, but I wanted the products to be stand-out and have real substance.  For me, I was driven by the flexibility to hunt new cross-category business and had some interesting deals ranging from a Global Collaboration with Happy Socks for SpongeBob SquarePants to an award-winning swimming aid in Turtle Pack where we created a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s edition.

I was looking at airline partnerships, tourism, the travel industry – the bits outside of the CP team’s ‘bread and butter’. The wide scope really helped me understand where the gaps are across multiple sectors…

So yes, that’s how I fell into licensing, but I loved it straight away.

Great. Last year saw you join Penguin Ventures as Commercial Director. How was that switch?
It’s funny. When I was first approached for the role, the person on the phone said: “I’m recruiting for Penguin Random House Children’s.” I actually shut the conversation down quite quickly, telling them “I don’t do books!” because publishing had never been a focus of mine. They then told me it was for the licensing arm, and instantly I was able to understand the value and responsibility that this kind of opportunity comes with. For me, it was a no-brainer and a privilege to join.

Having been at Viacom for the best part of 10 years, I’d worked with leading content-led IP like PAW Patrol, SpongeBob SquarePants and South Park; brands with huge awareness that were in your face every single day. It wasn’t an easy sell, but there were many times with PAW Patrol where our phones were ringing instead of us making the calls. While publishing was one arm of our CP offering at Viacom, it was interesting to join a company where publishing is our core content and main driver.

“The heritage and history of Peter Rabbit means that generations of families have grown up with our brand.”

How would you describe Penguin Ventures’ approach to licensing?
One phrase I’ve brought to Ventures is ‘We’re off the page and on an adventure.’ Whether that’s through product, across the digital landscape or real-life experiences, that’s what we’re here to do. With the absence of a TV content pipeline, we have to work harder and smarter to compete in this incredibly busy space, but on the flip side, it means we don’t have to wait for third party content creation. In that way, we can act collaboratively across the business, identify opportunities and be quicker to market.

What’s the relationship like between your team and the publishing team at Penguin?
We work together closely and influence each other – our Owned Brands team has developed a long-term strategy for all of the properties and both Ventures and publishing are working towards those common overarching goals. There’s been cases where some of our product style guides ended up feeding into the design and development of new titles.

We share ideas and insights. Sometimes, a certain clothing line at a grocer might’ve flown off the shelves and we’ll feed all the information we can back to the publishing sales team in case it’s useful in terms of securing cross category space for books. We also have a brilliant non-trade team who can create bespoke publishing for partners that have started out as a licensee. With Peter Rabbit, our Creative Director Thomas Merrington and Creative Manager Naomi Godden work hard to ensure we have new style guides bringing refreshed looks and that often feeds into what publishing are doing.

One other key element is our live experiences, where we’ll always have the books present. One example in the UK is our new Peter Rabbit Storytime Trail. It’s a low-tech, sustainable, touring panel exhibition that was launched as part of the 120th anniversary celebrations. It really brings the book to life, and we’ve hosted them in areas that were struggling to get people back into libraries following the pandemic. The trail really demonstrates how we work closely with the publishing arm, and how through great design we can craft some really engaging experiences.

David Sprei, Penguin Ventures

Speaking of your experiences, we recently covered the opening of the Peter Rabbit Garden in North Kensington; the first of three community gardens to be designed as part of the Grow With Peter Rabbit initiative.
Yes, that partnership with Grow2Know, initiated by our Owned Brands Team, set us up to authentically talk about Peter Rabbit and what the brand stands for. It takes everything in those stories and brings them to life, ensuring that we are reaching the widest and most diverse audiences with our IP to deliver meaningful and long-lasting impact.

That approach also extends to how we maintain Beatrix Potter’s legacy too and not just the books. As part of Thomas’ team, we have Sara Glenn, our in-house Commercial Curator, and from an exhibition point of view, we have a responsibility to pay homage to our collection of original artworks and objects belonging to Beatrix.

This year, for the first time ever, we flew the entire collection – on two planes! – over to Japan, where we’re in the middle of a huge Peter Rabbit multi-venue exhibition. It’s at Osaka until September, but the first run of the exhibition welcomed over 75,000 visitors.

David Sprei, Penguin Ventures

Wow! And what treasures does the exhibition show off?
It’s not just the books, it’s original letters, prints, illustrations… It really makes everything around the brand come to life and it’s a really important initiative for us. In Japan and China, it’s more of an adult fanbase because the audience learnt English at school from the Peter Rabbit books.

Lots of our collaborations in those territories have more of an adult focus… We’ve had over 200,000 visitors to the Peter Rabbit English Garden at the base of Mount Fuji. You couldn’t get a better location, and we had to work hard to bring the brand to life authentically at the other side of the world.

David Sprei, Penguin Ventures
It looks incredible. Let’s talk about design for a moment. How important is a licensee’s approach to design to you when it comes to striking deals?

It’s hugely important. It’s part of the due diligence we have to do when scoping out new partners. We always endeavour to work with the best in class, so we look closely at design credentials and creative approach. We’ll often do brand immersions with partners before a deal has been signed. It’s important to find out what their plans are creatively, as well as commercially. We don’t want to do label slaps. It’s easy to say yes to deals, but we do walk away from deals if something isn’t the right fit, and that can sometimes come down to design.

Are there any launches that you feel really highlight how creative partners can be with your brands?
If it had to pick one, I’d say our work with Histrionic Productions on the Peter Rabbit Garden Adventure at Blenheim Palace. We’ve managed to create an immersive experience without throwing a load of expensive tech at it, it wouldn’t have worked. It’s best in-class, highly bespoke and feels like a natural extension of the brand. We couldn’t have got a better fit in terms of brand, partner and location. Histrionic have gained access to some of the gardens that haven’t been open to the public for over 100 years, and the way we’ve used the natural environment to tell this story is incredible.

David Sprei, Penguin Ventures

What do you think it is about your brands that ignites a creative spark in licensees?
The heritage and history of Peter Rabbit means that generations of families have grown up with our brand. They have an affinity with it, so our partners often feel – as we do – that it’s a privilege to work on a brand like Peter Rabbit. I think they also see it as an exciting opportunity to bring these classic stories to new audiences. In the absence of new content the way we have to futureproof our properties is through relevant brand extensions.

It also applies to brands like The Snowman. Who hasn’t experienced the magic and creative brilliance of the late Raymond Briggs at some point during their childhood or shared in it with their own children? There’s a real feeling of timeless nostalgia around The Snowman, and it’s powerful. It’s the same across our entire portfolio of classic properties.

As we’ve mentioned, many of your brands have been household names for decades and decades. How do you walk the line between keeping them relevant, while respecting their heritage?
It’s a brilliant question! It’s about balance, and this is the biggest push and pull internally between commercial and creative. It’s important for us to do this authentically, but we also need to play where others are playing. Look at the digital space; it’s an area we’ve been quite shy in, but it’s an area we want to explore to greater effect. That said, we have to do it in the most relevant way possible. We won’t be seeing Peter Rabbit interacting with Snoop Dogg in the metaverse, but we can look at how our brand values can be activated in the digital space – and a large part of that will come creatively through Thomas.

Great. David, this has been fun. I have one last question… How do you fuel your creativity?
A lot of my inspiration comes from outside of the licensing industry. When I joined Penguin, I said “Go to the trade shows that our competitors aren’t going to. Sign up to the newsletters that our competitors aren’t reading.” I want the team travelling to places and shows that aren’t – on paper – licensing-focused.

Linkedin is a great source of inspiration, as is speaking to people within the industry. Speaking to other parents also leads to really useful insights. But mainly, it’s about getting out and about to shows, museums, exhibitions… You never know where you’ll find inspiration.

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