Thomas Merrington – Creative Director at Penguin Ventures – on passion, perspectives and Peter Rabbit

As Peter Rabbit’s 120th anniversary approaches, Thomas Merrington – Creative Director at Penguin Ventures – explains why the character continues to thrive across consumer products and live events.

2022 will remarkably mark 120 years of Peter Rabbit.

To mark the anniversary of the beloved character, Penguin Ventures has a raft of activity planned, spanning exciting product launches to a landmark exhibition in Japan.

We spoke with Thomas Merrington, Creative Director at Penguin Ventures, to find out more about the bringing Peter Rabbit to life in consumer products – and what makes for successful creative collaborations with licensees.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures
Thomas, great to connect. We last spoke a few weeks back at BLE. How was the show for you? Are you over the shock of seeing that many people together in real life again?!

Thanks Billy. Ha ha! Yes, it was a bit overwhelming! BLE has always been a really important space for us at Penguin Ventures and we were all so pleased to be able to see our friends and colleagues again.

For me, one of the highlights was actually being able to spend time with the Ventures team as we haven’t all been in the same space since lockdown. It was also a great opportunity to meet the new licensees and partners we signed up during this period as well as some new creative agencies and live and experiential partners, which was brilliant.

Before we dive into your brands, I’m interested to find out how you came to work in this space?
I absolutely fell into it! I actually have a science degree, and originally worked in a lab, creating formulations for toiletries and home fragrance. I had always been creative, but for some reason went down a more academic route initially.

“Any successful licensing partnership is hugely dependant on the creative teams having a close working relationship with the sales teams.”

In my development role I was lucky enough to work closely with the design teams in London, who one day were looking for a PD assistant and took me on! I had to move to London in under a month and didn’t know anyone here, but it literally changed my life.

Amazing. I wonder how many figures in licensing have science degrees! So when did brands enter the picture?
Well, from there, a friend who I worked with got a job at BBC Worldwide – as it was then – to develop licensed toys. I’d never heard of licensing but asked him to keep his eyes open for me, and sure enough, a creative exec role came up and I managed to get the job. I was immediately immersed in new brand worlds like Top Gear and Strictly Come Dancing, as well as working on the development of the show ZingZillas which was hugely exciting and rewarding. I got to work with some amazing people, including Vin Burnham – who is one of my creative heroes – and I’ve been in brands since then!

It’s funny because whist I was at the BBC I worked on a show called Wibbly Pig. The brilliant team at Rainbow Designs were the master toy partner and I remember seeing all the Peter Rabbit products in their show room and thinking how amazing it would be to work on that brand!

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

Destiny! Now you’re Creative Director at Penguin Ventures. The title of Creative Director is an interesting one, and the role can be very different for different people; how would describe what you cover?
I’ve been hugely lucky throughout my career to have some amazing bosses who have always supported my development and growth. I am a very commercial creative and I don’t like being siloed into one specific role. I have a real interest in making sure – or trying to ensure – that anything I do under the creative banner is not only in service to the brand and the fans, but also works from a commercial point of view.

My role is rather expansive at Penguin Ventures and I have a number of “hats” – as Susan Bolsover, our Licensing and Consumer Products Director, would say! I look after the Creative Direction of all our style guides, brand look and feel, as well as all our product development – with the brilliant support of Naomi Godden, our Creative Exec.

I also look after all our live and experiential offerings – not just the creative, but also the negotiation and contractual side of things. I am a massive fan of this sector and being involved in the contractual side of this process has been really eye opening.

We are also incredibly fortunate to own and manage archives of original artworks and artifacts on behalf of Frederick Warne – the owner of The World of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter’s original publisher, as well as Ladybird and Flower Fairies. Sara Glenn sits in my team as our brilliant Commercial Curator and we are responsible for creating and touring exhibitions of the artwork and artefacts.

“I have a real interest in making sure that anything I do under the creative banner is not only in service to the brand and the fans, but also works from a commercial point of view.”

Peter Rabbit has enjoyed a life on the big screen in recent years. Has that world crossed into your day job much?
On occasion I sit across our TV and movie offerings – working with the production teams in the background to try and keep things on brand. I was lucky enough to serve as Executive Producer on Peter Rabbit 2.

Now, next year sees Peter Rabbit celebrate its 120th anniversary. Why do you think the character and the brand has endured for so long?
It really is amazing and a huge testament to Beatrix Potter for creating such enduring characters and immersive worlds. Beatrix licensed Peter Rabbit in her lifetime – so she really started the licensing business – establishing Peter as one of the world’s oldest licensed literary characters.

Her style of illustration and design is timeless and her stories and characters, set in the natural world have an inherent nostalgia with most of the British population. Even if you have never read the stories, it’s very likely you will have owned a gift – a money box or figurine – featuring her characters, perhaps bought for you as a baby.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

Without a doubt. And I had no idea she was an early pioneer of licensing – remarkable. We should also mention Beatrix Potter’s illustrations. How important has that look been to the continued success of the brand?
Beatrix never drew Peter the same way twice – so this gives us some real creative freedom with regards to the artwork and style guides. It’s key for us to respect the classic legacy but we also work hard to ensure Peter appeals to contemporary audiences.

The creative approach is also quite expansive. In the UK, the brand is strongest in the nursery and toddler areas, whereas in Japan – our second biggest market – it is entirely adult focused.

Thomas, I’m learning a lot here! Why has Peter Rabbit resonated so much in Japan?
Many Japanese people learnt English from the Peter Rabbit stories. As such, it’s important we keep the nostalgic element at the forefront of our designs. It’s also always been important for me, from a creative point of view, to celebrate Peter within his classic world.

When we spoke at BLE, I think you mentioned that Beatrix Potter had only illustrated a limited number of original poses for Peter Rabbit. How much of a creative challenge has it been to build the brand out from that, or do you find these kinds of limits help fuel ideas?
Beatrix actually drew about 20 or so images of Peter in the Original Tales series, but more exist in other formats – like the postcards, Christmas cards and colouring books that she created in her lifetime. As mentioned, we are lucky in some ways that Peter doesn’t really look the same in any one image – so this does give us some flexibility.

We take a sensible approach to creative – just because Beatrix didn’t draw something, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist in the world she created. This gives us the freedom to work collaboratively with our fantastic publishing colleagues across editorial and design, but also with our incredible licensing partners to ensure we create ranges that can constantly evolve, remain commercial and – most importantly – refer back to the classic and authentic origins of the brand.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

From a design point of view, have there been any recent Peter Rabbit product launches or activations that highlight how creative your partners can be with it?
Yes – so many! As Peter is a classic brand, we often work with companies who have never licensed or worked with an IP before and it’s always fun – mostly! – seeing how they adapt our characters.

In terms of activations, we have a landmark exhibition in place for Japan next year which Sara Glenn has curated. This is the first time we have ever sent all of Beatrix Potter’s original Peter Rabbit watercolours overseas – it’s a real logistical challenge, but the results will be so exciting to see.

On the product side, Orange Tree Toys is a great example of how we allowed them to draw Peter in their own style – they have a huge range now which looks amazing.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

We have a long-standing partnership with Joules – they have a very distinctive handwriting, so we allow them to interpret Peter into their designs. Their collections get stronger and stronger and next year’s collection is just stunning.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

Lovely stuff. Any more?
Yes, Enesco are one of our longest partners – over 35 years – and they have just launched a new range of figurines in collaboration with Jim Shore.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

We have also developed a new Signature line of toys with Rainbow Designs – that have a beautiful heirloom quality to them.

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

Dennicci, our brilliant apparel partner, is always striving to bring something new to our ranges – their design teams are so passionate and as we expand our clothing ranges, every retailer wants something new and different. I think our Spring 22 collections for a range of UK grocers are some of our strongest yet!

Similarly, Cath Kidston’s interpretation of Peter was so beautiful and hugely successful. We have some amazing launches next year that I am so excited about, but we can’t mention them just yet!

Thomas Merrington, Penguin Ventures

It’s an impressive line-up of partners. What do you think is the key to successful creative collaboration?
Passion without the ego. But I would also say, any successful licensing partnership is hugely dependant on the creative teams having a close working relationship with the sales teams. If the creative teams aren’t aligned from the start, the PD process can be a real challenge.

We are so incredibly lucky to work with amazing partners across our brands. The most successful and enjoyable collaborations are the ones where they are as passionate about what they do as we are – and where we are able to have open conversations about creative. We trust them as experts in their fields as they trust us as experts in ours.

“Beatrix never drew Peter the same way twice – so this gives us some real creative freedom with regards to the artwork and style guides.”

While we are the licensor, we really do try to work with all our licensees in partnership, both commercially and creatively. I think some partnerships fall down where the creative and commercial teams are completely separated. At Penguin Ventures – we all work with our partners – sales and creative, in tandem.

It sounds like the smart approach. Thomas, this has been great. Thanks so much for taking the time. Before I let you go, one final question: How do you fuel your own creativity?
I really find working in new product areas or with new partners inspiring. New perspectives, new ideas, new narratives and new voices are hugely exciting.

I also get a massive kick from live theatre. That sector has been so badly handled during the pandemic that it’s great to be able to sit in a theatre again and watch amazing performances. I love set and prop design, so seeing any kind of new stage production really fuels my imagination.

Great stuff. Thanks again Thomas; I look forward to seeing all the Peter Rabbit anniversary plans kick into gear in 2022.

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