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Toy Story

Led by longtime direct response marketer Robert Yusim, Product Counsel has spearheaded the industry’s push into toys and children’s products.

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Toy Story

Not long ago, direct response marketers avoided putting stuffed animals, toys, and other children’s products on television. Kids don’t have phones or bank accounts, the logic was, so they couldn’t dial the toll-free number and buy.

Over the last 12 years, however, Robert Yusim has helped change that. The Canadian has worked on dozens of successful DRTV launches for products that children want, and his company, Product Counsel (ProductCounsel.com), espouses a formula that gets children’s products on TV and into big-box retailers fast.

“Before 2005, there was a myth that you couldn’t sell toys on TV, because kids don’t have credit cards,” Yusim says. “But by 2006, I was able to develop a formula that included a compelling, but financially prudent, TV offer; great creative; and a solid backend that generated great results across numerous campaigns.”

An Education in DR

Yusim started out in marketing as a college student, selling advertising to local, regional, and national companies on campus calendars, coupon books, and discount cards that were distributed free of charge to students in Canada. Yusim divested after graduation, and his accountant suggested that he take a meeting with his brother-in-law—Ray Kives, who had helped launch the As Seen On TV powerhouse K-tel with his cousin, Philip. “If you do this project and you succeed, I’ll teach you everything I know,” Kives told him.

Kives held the licensing rights to Super Dave Osborne, the comedic stuntman who was experiencing a surge in exposure from appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and a tongue-in-cheek Nike “Rocket Shoe” ad. Yusim’s assignment? To establish a line of Super Dave licensed apparel. With the help of a friend, Yusim printed a prototype T-shirt and hat, took them to a Canadian licensing expo two weeks later, and walked out with a $5,000 advance.

“There was a lot of luck involved, but I’ll take it,” Yusim says. “It takes hard work to succeed at something, but it also takes some luck—and I’ve been very fortunate.”

Toying with Success

That luck persisted. In 1992, Kives’ company at the time, Quality, won the rights outside the United States rights to a simple ball-catch game, the Grip Ball. Armed with a tie-in to that year’s Summer Olympics in Barcelona, it was a massive success in Europe and took Toy of the Year in Australia. “We had a lot of momentum there, and we wanted to continue filling the pipeline with more toy products,” Yusim says.

In researching the company’s next product, a juggling toy based on traditional Chinese devil sticks, Yusim traveled to Toronto to find a manufacturer and met the three founders of what is now Spin Master, one of the largest toy companies in North America. He cut a deal, and hired the founder’s brother to help out with in-store demonstrations in Australia. “We went there and took them into Target, Toys R Us, Woolworth’s; it wound up being a tremendous success,” he says.

Yusim went on to create campaigns for a number of successful Spin Master toy products, including Air Hogs radio-controlled helicopters. “It was the beginning of a great friendship,” Yusim says. “I saw moving into the toy category as a really great opportunity. I acted as executive producer on all of the creative, set up the back end, and put the products on TV.”

“If a campaign doesn’t have the right partners, it is destined to fail, so I have a system in place to make sure mine are optimized for the best possible results.” —Robert Yusim, President, Product Counsel

By 2006, Spin Master was doing about $230 million in sales, and Yusim had previously partnered with JML to bring “classic” DR products to North America. Around that time, Spin Master co-president Anton Rabie asked Yusim’s opinion on marketing the Rocket Fishing Rod using DRTV. He adjusted the offer and tested a campaign, and a year later, the Rocket Fishing Rod was the No. 1 product in Walmart’s outdoor department.

The next product Yusim tested his model on was a moldable, colored sand that never dries out; Spin Master sold about $450 million worth of Moon Sand over a five-year period. “It’s a forerunner of all the sand that has been on the market,” Yusim says, “and the forerunner of all the toy activity in the DRTV space.”

Product and Process

Moon Sand and another hit, the Ready Bed, a rollout trundle for kids’ sleepovers, started Yusim on a process that pitches products directly to children through DRTV, creating great awareness and ultimately, demand. “If you put the right formula on TV, kids will want it,” he says. “They will go to their parents and ask for it. And parents will put their credit cards down and purchase as a result of all of the recognition and awareness and demand that we develop.”

Spin Master and Yusim parted ways amicably, and he now offers his winning formula to multiple clients—established consumer products companies and upstart inventors alike—that want to launch kid-friendly items through DRTV. “In fourth-quarter 2016, I had 17 campaigns on TV between Canada and the United States,” he says. “Over the last five years, we have launched approximately 70 campaigns to drive awareness and demand, and success at retail.”

One of the brands Product Counsel had supported was ZippySack bedding. The line became a success at retail in 2015 due to its classic problem- solving DR nature: A fitted, zipped sheet-and-sleeping-bag combo, it makes it easy for children to make their beds (keeping their parents happy), keeps them safe by preventing them from rolling out of bed, and satisfies their desire for cartoon characters.

Another recent success is the Wubble Ball, a product that functions like a soap bubble, except that it doesn’t pop. Since its invention and initial appearance on the market, Wubble has become a full-fledged toy brand with variations such as Wubble X and Super Wubble. “You can walk into any Target, Walmart, or Toys R Us and see significant amounts of Wubble,” Yusim says.

Other successes include the Kurio tablet, a wireless device for kids that offers built-in parental controls; the product line took in almost $100 million in sales in 2014. At the opposite end of the affordability scale, Pom Pom Wow craft kits have also been a big hit. And in 2013, Seat Pets—a car pillow offered in a variety of animal characters—became the year’s No. 1 plush.

“Every year, I have a different hit,” Yusim says. “I make sure campaigns are optimized and set up properly. If a campaign doesn’t have the right partners, it is destined to fail, so I have a system in place to make sure mine are optimized for the best possible results. I work with consumer products companies and inventors to take the products as far as we can. I liken myself to the quarterback on the team.”