Friday, October 21, 2016

Agent Spotlight - Donna Westman, DSW Licensing, LLC.

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How long have you been in business and how did you come to be an agent? 
Next year I will celebrate my 15th year in the art licensing field. In 2002 I was approached by an artist to partner with her to market her illustrations to acquire licensing deals with manufacturers. At that time I had limited knowledge of what art licensing was, however I did know an extensive amount about sales and marketing. My career for 15 years prior to meeting her was with a motivational speaker and writer helping build that business into a successful, lucrative career. The same skills that I learned in that business, I have applied to running DSW Licensing. Since that initial meeting in 2002 with the one artist, I have grown my business to include five highly talented, experienced artists that I am proud to partner with.  

Who are the manufacturers you work with - how did you establish those relationships?  How do you market artists?
I have partnered with over 85 different manufacturers of every imaginable product in the marketplace. With a collaborative effort between our agency, the artist and the manufacturer, strong partnerships have been developed over a wide spectrum of reputable companies within the home décor, paper products and giftware industries. One of the most exciting things about this business is to walk into a store and see DSW licensed products on the shelves and selling! It puts a smile on my face to see our flags displayed at Lowes, paper tableware at the local grocery store, or spot our wall décor and pillows at Target! We have had products in mass retailers as well as smaller, independent retail stores throughout the country.

Establishing these partnerships with manufacturers has been accomplished in various ways, but mainly through good old fashioned hard work and constant, consistent marketing and follow-through! I have exhibited at both Surtex and the Licensing Show, which have been beneficial, however I have found that it’s the daily work in my office of continual contact and communication through emails, my quarterly DSW E-News, utilizing social media (Facebook, Instagram, Linked-In, Twitter), and picking up the phone to talk to a client to hear what their needs are. (You can get a lot of information just by listening!)  And, a prompt response time when a request comes in, is always appreciated by clients.

 I also have attended for the past 15 years trade shows annually including the America’s Mart, Dallas Trade Show, Las Vegas Market, San Francisco Gift Show and the New York Stationery Show meeting one-on-one with clients at these shows as well as at their company headquarters. I have established terrific relationships over the years with some of the top manufacturers in this industry and am always looking for companies to align with. There are always new companies to research and present my artists designs to and very important that I stay on top of whom is the correct person to be sending the art to, as company contacts change often.

Do you have employees? 

I am a one woman show!  However, since I work so closely with the artists that I represent, they are, in some ways, considered my business partners. I think what differentiates my company from many other art agencies is that I keep the number of artists that I represent to a select smaller number, where many agents have a long roster of artists. I am very familiar with my artists’ portfolios because I work alongside each of them on an intimate basis. Knowing their portfolios’ enables me to curate and tailor proposals to manufacturers. And, what I have found is companies prefer to be sent artwork that is tailored to their specific needs and product formats, and not just a laundry list of images that they then have to weed through. They don’t have the time to do this, it is up to me as an agent to listen to their needs and then send a tailored, targeted submission. 

What do you look for in an Artist? 
There are several things I look for in an artist, but mainly art that is licensable!  I receive on a weekly basis submissions from artists and designers that are eager to get their designs licensed.  The vast majority are not images that I would present to my clients.  The art may be great for galleries or advertising campaigns, but not art that can be applied to a variety of product formats.  I always tell an artist to actually go walk retail stores and look at what is on the shelves. Buyers are very rarely looking for the neon unicorn on a plate. But, most likely you’ll see a more traditional Santa, beautiful floral, or fun and trendy word art. I also prefer an artist that has a wide portfolio to pull from, with all seasons. I license a lot of seasonal artwork, including, spring holidays, and fall holidays, especially the two big selling holidays, Harvest/Halloween and Christmas. I also partner with artists that are flexible and understand that the buyers make the final decision on the art. Buyers and creative directors are looking for what their customers’ needs are and what sells. It’s all about making the numbers work for manufacturers and it’s about what we can do to help them accomplish that! My artists are always “in the loop” on what requests I am receiving from potential licensees and art trends that they are looking for in their next product release. Many times my artists have taken these art “call-outs” and created new art collections based on the client’s specific requests. As a result, we have had quite a lot of success with securing licensing deals because of the time put in to listen and review what their needs are and create art accordingly.   I also look for artists that understand how to work in Photoshop, or some similar software so their designs can be applied to multiple product formats, and completed in an expeditious manner. The industry works on a quick turnaround these days, so having these necessary computer skills is critical for success.   

I also look for integrity and mutual respect when partnering with artists. It’s a close working relationship between me and the artists, and so these two qualities are important. My company statement is “At DSW Licensing you will find the distinctive art you need to have a successful product line, and at the same time, make each project an enjoyable experience with the highest level of excellence and integrity.” The five artists that I currently represent, I have worked with for many years.  I am grateful that I have such fabulous artists that are on my team.

How much work do you expect an artist to create?  
As I tell my artists, the more new art collections you send me, the more opportunities you have to get licensing deals! Of course, I would love to receive a new collection every week from my talented team, however that is the ideal. Some are more prolific than others, and some art requires more detail than others, therefore I may not receive as much from them. With that being said, if I find that I am not receiving new art on a pretty consistent basis, than I may need to look for a new artist to fill that void. Artists that are serious about this business know how important it is to stay on top of the trends and create new art on a regular basis. Otherwise, it’s just a hobby, not a business. 

Any great news you would like to share? 

I am pleased that we have had one of the best years in art licensing this past year.   I had many new manufacturers come on board, as well as licensees that we have worked with for many years expand their collections with new products. One of my artists has had her beautiful Christmas collection expanded by Demdaco after a very successful launch of her initial collection last January. It is rewarding to have a company do so well with their sales figures that they come to you to add more product sku’s for a future collection.        

How has the Art Licensing business changed over the years?
So much has changed and evolved in the art licensing industry! I would say the most significant changes are due to the digital age. My arms are not as in shape as they used to be since I don’t have to cart around 15 pounds of binders at shows! Now I present art from a SURFACE or iPad. When I began this career, all the art was printed out, put into folders with cover letters, post cards used as marketing tools, contracts were all mailed. Today it is predominantly digital marketing, including art submissions, email introductions, and E-contracts. And, there are all the Internet marketing tools such as websites, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. It’s completely transformed how I do business. One question that I get asked often is why I don’t have all of the artist’s designs on my DSW Licensing website. I only keep a small sampling from each artist to showcase their style and various themes.   We prefer not to put their entire portfolio online for a couple reasons. One, I prefer to hear from clients so I can tailor the art specifically for their product formats. And, secondly, unfortunately, we have found that there are online “opportunists” that may copy or infringe on the copyrights of artists therefore, I find it is best that I send out the artwork.

Any advice or information you would like to share?
This is a very unique business and takes a lot of the 3 P’s- patience, persistence, and perseverance.    There have been some companies that I have marketed to for ten years that I finally ink a contract with because I didn’t give up and kept consistently communicating with them. Sometimes the timing may not have been right, or the art just wasn’t what they were looking for during that season. The slogan that patience pays off, well, in this industry, that rings true! Not only can it take a long time to finally get the license agreement, but then there is the long process from the time I send a contract to when we will actually see any revenue, unless an advance was negotiated.  In between that is pre-production, sampling, getting to the market, shipping, and then you’ll see returns on the royalty reports.  This timeframe can be anywhere from 1-2 years. As in any business, there are days when you may feel discouraged, but I always try to focus on the successes and opportunities in this business.  All industry’s have their ups and downs. You just have to keep your head up and the art flowing! I like to think that the work we do is putting a smile on someone’s face as they enjoy one of our licensed products in their home.   

You can find DSW
Company website:

Connect with DSW through:

@dswlicensing or @donnawestman

Donna Westman

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  1. Great interview Annie and Donna! And lovely work by your artists as well! Thanks for sharing these Annie!

    1. Happy Sunday Valerie! I really dig the agent spotlights. So nice of you to stop by the blog - THANKS!

  2. I really enjoyed this interview , thanks girls !

  3. Very good interview, Annie, and most interesting responses from Donna, who provides an excellent insider view into what it's like being an art licensing agent!

    1. Lance! Yes, I thought Donna did a great job :-D Thanks so much for stopping by the blog.

    2. Thank you, Lance. I appreciate your kind comments.

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    1. Leena :-) I am glad you like this post! I find the agent spotlights to have great nuggets of information in them. Thank you for stopping by the blog!

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