Tuff Stuffs Ask the Execs series exclusive interview with Topps VP Warren Friss

With the hobby landscape changing rapidly before our eyes in recent months, many questions have arisen. How will the new exclusive licensing agreements affect collectors? What card companies will be producing what next year? What does the future hold for each company? These are just a small sample of the questions we hear everyday so Tuff Stuff went straight to the top to provide our readers with some answers.

The following is the second of a three-part series with the top executives of the three largest card manufacturers in the industry, with the sole purpose being to provide our readers (and collectors in general) with the answers they need to stay on top of the hobby.

Upper Deck CEO Richard McWilliam kicked off the series with Topps Vice President Warren Friss featured in this month’s Part II. Former Panini America President Michael Eisenstein had agreed to take part in the series and was scheduled to appear next month. Eisenstein has since left the company and new Panini America President Mark Warsop will be featured instead in Part III in our February issue. We hope you enjoy the series and please go to our Forum page at www.tuffstuff.com to post any questions or comments you might have.

– Scott Fragale


Personal

Tuff Stuff: Describe a typical day for you and what are some of your duties?
Warren Friss: It does seem like it’s different every day. Reporting into me I have sales, marketing, product development, finance and licensing, so as you can imagine I get involved with all of them. Some days I’m involved reviewing some products with the product teams and making suggestions and hearing about what’s coming out and what we’re planning for the next six, nine, 12 months. I get involved in the marketing side. Right now were working on our marketing plans for both Topps Baseball and Series 1 and Topps Attax so I’ve been reviewing that and working with our marketing team with that. I always have meetings with the leagues and the player’s associations, negotiating new deals and working with them on retail promotion and new deals and there’s always finance, you gotta review the numbers.

TS: Is there an one aspect or category that you get more fired up for and look forward to being a part of?
WF: I love the product development and  sales and marketing side. Coming up with new items, tweaking existing items, working with the sales team to create promotions and working on that stuff. As I said, you have to do the finance and the operations but I really love the marketing side.

TS: If someone is unfamiliar with the hobby and is looking to get involved, why should they spend their collecting dollars on Topps products versus the other options out there?
WF: The biggest thing is our heritage. Being in the collectible industry, and certainly baseball cards, heritage is important. And we have the heritage. Topps has always been a part of this business, Topps will always be a part of this business and when you buy a Topps product, you know what you’re getting. You know it’s going to represent something to you five years from now, 10 years from now, and know we’re going to be here and be behind those products. A great amount of care goes into our products. I can tell you that our product development people all love these products. When we’re developing products they’re not just looking at what will sell best. They’re collectors, too, and they’re putting into it what they would love and they care a great deal about them. So when you get a Topps product you’re getting something that was built by people that are passionate, that love the industry and  products that are going to survive the test of time.

TS: What are some of the best and worst changes made in the industry over the last two decades?
WF: The negative side I’d say the number of brands and the number of products released every year. That number has increased dramatically over the 15 years that I’ve been here. The last couple of years we’ve done some things to try and reduce it but I would say that’s the biggest negative change.

On the positive side, I think there’s been a great amount of innovation for collectors. Products like Topps Triple Threads, Allen & Ginter, Topps Sterling are products that people really love with some great innovation behind them and some exciting things in those products. So those are the types of things that we really weren’t doing 15 years ago. It was really just cards. It was players on paper or plastic and you know, every once in a while there would be an autograph or something like that, but the creativity and the innovation for the collector I think over the last 10 years has been terrific.

And the other thing has been the use of the Internet. Toppstown, which is our online world for kids has been very successful. We’ve really adopted the fact that kids are online and that if you want to be successful with kids you need an online element to it. And I think moves like Toppstown and programs like that are a real positive and going forward are really going to evolve the industry and help us bring the kids back.

It’s All About The Kids

TS: What are some of the other things you are doing to try and get kids back?
WF: Toppstown is our big draw for a our Topps base brand so that’s how we’re trying to get kids more involved in the regular Topps base product but we also launched a new card product called Topps Attax. It’s a fairly simple card game which is based on a product we do in Europe called Match Attax which is card game we do for the UK Premier League which is incredibly, incredibly popular in the UK. With the proportions of Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokeman and what they were like here, that’s how popular Match Attax is in the UK. We then launched it in Germany with the Bundasliga, and it was equally as successful.

We then launched it here last year and it started out slow and we did some TV advertising and then we switched our marketing to the Grass-root levels. So we did some sampling at Little Leagues, minor league stadiums and FanFest and in the areas where we did the sampling and giving cards away and showed kids how to play, the product just took off in the stores in those areas and it’s actually continued to build outward and we’re constantly getting calls now, “where can I get Topps Attax products?” We didn’t make that much of it last year and it’s really dried up now and people are looking for it in our next release so we’re going to take what we learned on the marketing side and focus on more grass-roots marketing, giving away cards and showing kids how to play and I’m totally convinced that that’s going to work and ignite Topps Attax and bring young kids back into the card world.

We demo-ed it at FanFest and kids would go from learning the product on one side of the Topps booth and the first thing they’d say was ‘where can I buy these cards?’ and they’d come right over to the other side of the Topps booth and buy the cards immediately and we were sold out quickly. And I’ve never seen that where you show somebody a product one minute and the next minute they’re ready to buy it so we’re really, really excited about Topps Attax for this year and bringing kids back into the hobby.

TS: With the economy the way it has been and the downturn that we’ve all been going through it would have been easy for someone like yourself to make a career change and take it in another direction or possibly revisit your legal history, that type of thing. What keeps you from doing something like and how long do you intend on being with Topps?

WF: Well, I have no intention of going anywhere that’s for sure and that’s based upon my passion for the industry and the business. Yeah, I could go back to being a lawyer somewhere but it just wouldn’t be the same. I love working with the teams here and developing products and I love seeing the look on collector’s faces or kid’s faces when the open a pack of our product and they get something they like just like I did in the 1970s. And I love the fact that we make products that people look back on 20, 30 and 40 years later and they mean something to them. I have cards from the 1970s that when I look at them, I smile and there’s very few products that you can say that of.

TS: If you had the power to change just one thing in the industry what would it be?

WF: The retail environment. We have too many products on the shelves at the retail level. As we’re looking to bring kids back  through Toppstown and Topps Attax, we need to have a bigger presence within the retailers and less clutter. We need to be at a point where a kid walks up to a shelf, whether its at Target or Walmart or any other retailer, and they’re new to the category and they want to buy baseball cards and they heard about Topps Attax and they gotta get it, they’re not  presented with a dizzying array of products that they have to sort through to find the one they like. They should be able to walk up to the retail shelf and be clearly presented with the items that are for them, that are for the new collector and not be confused with all the other products that are on the shelves.  Changing that is really a critical thing going forward and through our exclusive with MLB we’re working on that and with the retailers we’re working on that.
MLB Exclusive & Future Plans
TS: With the new exclusive with MLB, some people are concerned that just one company with their hands in the pot is going to create a monopoly which will ultimately lead to less value, less innovation and other negative aspects that a lack of competition will sometimes  present. How would put those fears to rest?
WF: Topps has been in this industry for a very long time and we obviously have a huge investment in this industry and in making it successful. Competition comes from lots of places these days, it’s not just from other companies making trading cards. It’s Pokemon cards and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, it’s from video games, games online and all sorts of places. So our need to innovate and be creative and market is not just because there’s somebody else in the baseball card category. It’s because we’re fighting for the attention of the kids with many, many categories. We’ve obviously invested a lot. We’ve invested a lot to get exclusivity so we have tremendous incentive to grow this business. If we don’t grow this business, we won’t succeed, and we know that we have to innovate and market to grow the business. I think when people see Topps Series I for 2010, I think all those fears will be laid to rest. They’ll see what we’re investing and they’ll see how much has gone into this and there won’t be any doubt how innovative we’re being and how we’re continuing to invest in the business.
TS: What is the process like:
WF: It’s certainly a process that takes time, as we’ve been talking to MLB about this for the last several years. But ultimately, you go in and meet with them and you have to convince them of two things: One, the money of course has to be right. You’ve got to be able to make it make sense to them from a financial persepctive but you also have to convince them that it’s the right thing to do for the business long-term. If they do something that earns them a few extra dollars this year but the following year the market continues to decline, they’ll get hurt as well. The key to it was really convincing MLB that the market needed to get cleaned up, that there needed to be fewer products out on the shelves, and then finally, that Topps was the right company to do that. So those are the key points. Making sure the money is right, convincing them that it’s the right thing to do for the industry and the business long-term. And then convincing them, which was probably the easiest, that Topps was the right partner, and that we can and will turn the business around if given the opportunity and given the opportunity to clean up the retail envoirnment.

(Part II in our exclusive “Ask the Excs” interview with Topps’ Vice president Warren Friss will continue in next month’s issue along with Part I of our exclusive interview with Panini-America President Mark Warsop. SCM

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