Warner Bros. Discovery Global Consumer Products’ Jay Young on empathy, fandom and untapped brands

Jay Young, VP Creative & Product Development at Warner Bros. Discovery Global Consumer Products, discusses mash-ups, creativity and 100 years of Warner Bros.

Jay, I’m over the moon to be speaking with you. Before we dive into Warner Bros’ 100th anniversary activity, how did you come to work in product development?
It’s been a long and winding road! Strangely enough, I did a degree in painting and drawing… I was going to become “an artist.” I lived in Newport Beach, California at the time and my idea was to sell t-shirts to tourists in the summer and spend the winters painting. The guy I was doing the t-shirts with didn’t have any support, so I ended up working for him. From there I went to a bigger t-shirt and lifestyle company called Ocean Pacific and was there in the Eighties and Nineties.

I had a really good boss and every time I complained about something, he let me do the job – I learned very quickly to stop complaining! I discovered that the things you complain about are the things you don’t know very much about. He exposed me to manufacturing and importing and costing… I then moved to the UK and managed a textile printing company up in the Midlands, and then the Warner Bros. Consumer Products job came up.

“Creativity is not just about design – it’s also about how you execute from a commercial point of view.”

So I started doing t-shirts to fund my painting career and ended up doing t-shirt designs to fund my painting habit – something I plan on doing more of later in life.

On that, are there any similarities between your mind-set when painting and what you do at Warner Bros.?
I’d actually argue what I do at Warner Bros. is more creative because it’s based off of other people’s needs and not your own… Painting is quite a selfish endeavour. I always tell designers that come and work for us that what we do is a business. If you want to create art, go home to do that. Creativity is not just about design – it’s about how you execute from a commercial point of view as well.

You’ve been with Warner Bros. for over 25 years. Why do you think you’ve been there for so long?
It’s the variety of everything I do and the breadth of the IP. There are times I’m completely immersed in Harry Potter and then Batman and then Looney Tunes. At a lot of other places, you’d get put in a silo, but Warner Bros. gives me the opportunity to work across a wide range of IP.

It’s also the variety of products, the variety of partners and the variety of cultures. The EMEA market is vast and unique. We work across 40 or so languages across 50 plus countries. Each presents its own unique challenges and twists – you get a real sense of the differences between global, regional and local. It gives you a flow of points of view… You can see things that resonate regardless of which language the market speaks.

“The Wizard of Oz seems to be resonating with designers right now – the brand is seen as being one of hope in a difficult time.”

You mentioned the wide variety of IP you work with. What makes some of these Warner Bros. brands special to work on?
Well, a lot these brands can never be created again. They were built at a time when a brand’s gestation period could be 10 to 20 years. There’s only about seven or eight brands globally that are like that. Anything created now is going to be great, it’s going to be hot, but it could be gone in a year. There’s not a lot of bandwidth in retailers’ minds to let a new brand live for a long period of time.

Is there a knack to thriving as a creative in a big corporation like Warner Bros. Discovery?
The key to thriving as a creative in a big corporate world is to be a good translator. I think some of my success is down to the fact that I understand the design world and the commercial world. I can explain the commercial world to designers in design language, and I can explain design to the commercial people in their language. That’s valuable because you can’t go to a finance director and say: “We’re going to be successful with this because I think it looks really nice.” You must have empathy for the commercial side and for everybody’s needs.

Alongside being a good translator, what else does your role as VP Creative & Product Development cover?
Well, my title sounds too posh for me – I rarely use it unless I need something from the IT department. I’d say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. It sounds humble but it’s true. Problem-solving is a big part of the job, but being a collaborator is the most important part.

Also, it sounds boring but maximising effort and energy through the processes and systems we use – I find that really creative. Getting more creativity out of the same amount of energy; I get as much of a buzz out of that as I do from a nice piece of art.

How do you fuel your creativity? What helps you have ideas?
At the first design class I took at university, the teacher said: “I’m not going to teach you how to draw, I’m going to teach you how to see like a child.” The basis of that is to be a good designer you’ve got to look at everything like you’ve never seen it before.

As you get older, your brain processes things in a way where you see ‘a book’ or ‘a glass.’ It doesn’t register the details, so designers need to try and bypass that instinct and look at things for what they really are. That keeps life exciting because you’re constantly challenging the status quo, both visually and conceptually.

I also love the statement from Henry Ford: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ I always refer to that when doing research. I’m not a big fan of research that asks people questions; I prefer to watch what people do. History and sociology – two things I would’ve ran a million miles from at school – now have a huge influence over what I do today.

“The key to thriving as a creative in a big corporate world is to be a good translator.”

The last thing is to observe the world without prejudice or preconception. We’re all fans of our brands but you really have to look at them for what they are. Do I like every single product we design or graphic we create? No, but I love the process. The joy of creativity is designing for others; designing for yourself is easy.

You mentioned being a fan there. Does being a fan matter? Do you have to like the brands you’re working on?
I think you have to be, but there’s being a fan and there’s being a superfan. There’s not enough energy to be a superfan of everything that we do, but you have to understand the fans’ mindset.

Superfans are hard to convince that their super-fandom is not the only way, so there are positives associated with designers being a little bit detached from that so you can be open to other ideas. But superfans are our bread and butter; that’s who we’re servicing. If we don’t service them, we’re in trouble.

Let’s dive into some of the WB100 activity. One of the initiatives celebrating 100 years of Warner Bros. are these Looney Tunes mash-ups – these are products and videos showing Looney Tunes characters dressed as iconic Warner Bros. characters. Where did this idea come from?
It all started from a couple of pieces of art. We thought it would be a fun thing to do, but as you might imagine, it’s not necessarily easy from a legal standpoint! The premise is that the Looney Tunes are celebrating 100 years of Warner Bros. storytelling by dressing in costumes of their favourite characters. If we went to the lawyers without that narrative and just said “We want to mix Batman and Looney Tunes,” the answer would usually be “no.” The story and the celebration of the 100 years is key. It’s not forever; we’re not building a new IP.

Warner Bros., Jay Young, Film & TV, Looney Tunes

What dictated who dressed as who?
Well, that’s where being a Looney Tunes fan really helped. The Wizard of Oz one is a good example. The Cowardly Lion is Sylvester – he’s a cat, so that’s a straightforward one! Lola is obviously Dorothy. Bugs is like the Tin Man because they are quick-witted and resourceful, but at times, may feel like they are missing a heart. There’s apparel with Taz as The Flash. It all plays into their personalities. We looked at it like they were going to Comic-Con.

“The joy of creativity is designing for others; designing for yourself is easy.”

What is the appeal of mash-ups? Why do we get a kick out of seeing brands collide in this way?
It makes something new out of things that are familiar. It’s that simple. It’s a complex world and there’s a lot of information in everyone’s lives; constant noise. These things cut through because they feel familiar, but they also feel fresh and exciting because there’s a twist.

And it’s interesting with something like The Wizard of Oz, because it seems to be resonating with lots of designers right now. I think the brand is seen as being one of hope in a difficult time. Post-Covid, ‘No place like home,’ there’s a renewed pride for that part of your life. Societal shifts have a big impact on what brands designers gravitate to and The Wizard of Oz is a great example of that.

Warner Bros., Jay Young, Film & TV, Looney Tunes

Lots of Warner Bros. brands are in the spotlight because of the 100-year milestone. Are there any brands in the vault you feel are still relatively untapped licensing-wise?
I think all of our classic brands are relatively untapped versus their potential. It sounds strange but I really think that. Things move so fast and sometimes the licensing community – licensee and retailers – don’t see the true potential of our classic brands.

The one I’d say is really untapped is Tom & Jerry. It’s become quite popular in Asia and it’s above almost every brand when we do awareness and likeability research. But I’d say all our classic brands are pretty untapped.

That’s interesting – why do you think Tom & Jerry is so popular?
There’s no language barrier, so it’s viewed on TV more than almost any other show in the world. And five generations have seen it… Like DC and Looney Tunes, it’s endorsed by your parents and their parents. It becomes really good for our infant business as parents express their love for our brands through their kids.

Warner Bros., Jay Young, Film & TV, Looney Tunes

Before I let you go, one last question: What launch have you been involved in that you think was somewhat underrated?
I’d say Year of the Rabbit, the Lunar New Year collaborations we did with Bugs Bunny. We did collections with quite a few fashion partners and the beauty of it was that no two looked the same. We empowered partners to use their DNA with our classic character… We didn’t tell them what Bugs Bunny should look like with their brand. Moschino, BOSS, Desigual, Zara – the work is super diverse but really iconic. It’s also a great example of why I feel our brands haven’t reached their full potential yet.

Warner Bros., Jay Young, Film & TV, Looney Tunes

Sticking with Looney Tunes, what is the secret to that brand’s enduring success?
Well, my understanding of the history is that the animators who created Looney Tunes modelled the characters after themselves. The personality traits are very human. We always say that people aspire to be Bugs but feel like Wile E. – especially anyone that commutes!

Ha! Jay, this has been fun. A huge thanks again.

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