Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where Have You Gone Millens W. Taft?























Each February thousands of people flock to NYC for the annual Toy Fair, an industry extravaganza. The throng consists of buyers, exhibitors, inventors and various other trade guests. Nary a mere consumer among those attendees. TIA insists badge holders perform some function that makes the industry tick. And it's a mature crowd. To get that entry badge, one must be over 18 years old.

One attendee, who has been missing the past few years after so many Toy Fairs where he was a magnet to inventors, is Millens (Mel) W. Taft. Beloved industry schtickmeister, Fred Kroll, each year would add to his record of 50++ Toy Fairs. But Mel Taft was at that same lofty total. He started attending the industry event in 1949 and likely exceeded Fred's self proclaimed attendance record. For most of Mel's Toy Fair appearances, he was the welcoming figure to inventors in Milton Bradley's suite at 200 5th Ave. After his MB days, he was a familiar figure at Fairs worldwide as an international toy and game licensing agent.

Mel was always easy to spot. Not many toy people reached his 6' 5" stature, wore a "crew cut" when coiffed styles were well passed the collar, or showed a preference to camel hair jackets over shiny pin-stripped suits. If not within reach of one of his loving back slaps, one knew he was nearby by the sound his friendly high decibel belly laugh that resonated throughout the aisles. Mel Taft had the inviting qualities that attracted inventors to MB. He was enthusiastic, inquisitive, energetic, supportive and playful. Here was a Harvard MBA always ready to roll up his sleeves and play. (And isn't play what the industry is all about?)

Mel hoped that inventors would mirror many of his qualities when they pitched ideas. That mantra was captured in his belief that to sell a new idea, "if you aren't enthusiastic and passionate about it, how can you expect others to be?" He was all enthusiasm for the projects he "sold" to his management associates that contributed to the phenomenal sales increase of over 100 times from his start date at MB. He was a driving force in making MB the world's largest game company. He was a firm believer that in the toy and game business, "product is king" and his vision of the importance of good product over the years brought many firsts to the MB line.

During his years as head of R&D, and a good many of those heading Marketing, too, MB introduced games featuring early TV characters. Hopalong Cassidy and Howdy Doody were soon followed by a long list of cartoon based games. Seeing that TV game shows appealed to the older crowd, Mel pushed for home versions of Concentration, Jeopardy, Price is Right, and many others. In fact, Concentration was the first MB million seller. He put the word "mass" in the category, "mass market games".

Sensing consumer attractions to celebrities, Mel lined up spokes persons including Art Linkletter, Lucy Ball, and the Odd Couple. Acting on advice that electronics were coming into toys and games big time, Mel signed on enhanced products like Simon, StarBird, preschool Alphie Robot, the Microvision system and a host of games with electronic features. To keep the MB line current with technology trends and consumer demands, he structured an advanced R&D group to design the latest micro-magic into products across the Company's varied lines.

But it is not merely in the success of countless products Mel championed to market that is testimonial to his contributions to the industry. He tirelessly badgered the professional inventing community to spawn new ideas and to bring those innovations to his company first. During his active days at MB, inventors had many licensee choices. But it was Mel's personal style--and yes, prospects of big royalty payoffs from successful MB sales--that got licensing deals done. With his belief that product was king, Mel Taft always treated inventors as kingmakers. Those types of inventor-marketer relationships so central in Mel's days need to be sustained today to continue the infusion of inventors' creativity and innovation into the current industry.

I might be a tad biased toward Mel Taft since he hired me at Milton Bradley in 1969; just another mark of his true R&D management genius! But in my view, after observing the new product side for many years, I can confidently say that few in the T&G industry have had careers filled with as many accomplishments as Millens W. Taft.

15 comments:

  1. Ron, you absolutely captured the genius behind Mel's success and impact on our industry. His enthusiasm for new product ideas, and his intuitive understanding that a creative new "product is (always) king", and still separates those industry professionals and companies that grow and succeed.
    I must admit that sometimes, when pitching a new product to a toy or game company, it's hard for me to grasp why, despite all of the proof provided by product sales each year, that those reviewing products fail to accept that all it takes is one, JUST ONE, great product to transform a product category, a company, or even a whole industry.

    So Mel, wherever you are today, I want you to know that I miss you, and wish there were more like you reviewing new products today. By Paul Lapidus, NewFuntiers

    ReplyDelete
  2. loved your blog. And love Mel. Talked with him a couple weeks back. He is one of the great industry visionaries of his time. And a great person.
    He should be in the toy Hall of Fame.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I second that, Bruce! Wow! What would the toy and game inventor world have been without such a champion! He taught me so many lessons about the world of the inventor nd I am forever blessed.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wonderful story and photos Ron. Without Mel, I probably would not have succeeded in the toy business. He gave Larry Greenberg and me a break back in 1977 by staking us for one year. We had bugged him so often trying to sell "electronic toys" to MB that he made us a deal: If we stayed away and didn't bother him all the time and only visited MB and Playskool once a month to co-develop ideas, he would pay us up front for a year and retain the right of first refusal on our concepts. Success followed and we were on our way, thanks to Mel and his forward vision for electronics in toys and his belief in us. He was my mentor and my hero!

    Greg Hyman
    Greg Hyman Associates

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ron,

    Wow, it's taken me a long time to post something since you interviewed Mel and told me about your posting. Sorry about that. I guess I have a bit of bias about Mel just like you do, Ron...in a sense he hired me into the toy industry also, in 1985 as we were setting up Mel Taft Associates, and I met a huge number of great people (including all who posted) because of him, something for which I will always be grateful. (Actually, he DRAFTED me, and my siblings, into the industry when we were little kids called on to test games he brought home, but that's another story).

    While from my perspective as a relative latecomer to the toy industry I can agree with Ron and Paul about Mel's impact on the industry, I think the most valuable thing I have learned from him (and still learn from him to this day) is the importance of forming strong personal relationships with excellent people. He has always had an incredible knack for that.

    For those who asked (Paul, Donna, Greg) and might not be up to speed (I left off Bruce...I know from Mel that he's been in touch!!), Mel's doing fine. He will turn 88 in another couple of weeks. I don't think he was ever 6'5" Ron...he always told us 6'4" when we were kids, but he's gotten a little shorter with age (happens to us all). I will pass along everyone's greetings, which I know he will appreciate. If anyone wants to get a message to him, feel free to e-mail me (rtaft@btacom.com) and I will pass it along. He is not online himself anymore. He does still like to travel, and if he were 10-15 years younger he would probably be stranded at some exotic little hotel hideaway waiting for the volcano to stop...these days he has to stay closer to home. I know the toy industry will be an indelible part of him for as long as he is with us...and for him all of you good people are that industry!

    Rick Taft
    Mel Taft Associates

    ReplyDelete
  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  7. We love these fairs from teenagers wanted to participate in this great show, when we turned the age of majority and we don´t expect to participate in this toy fair!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Wonderful article about a wonderful man. I had the pleasure of working with him on the home version of the CONCENTRATION game. As producer of the TV show, I created all of the puzzles used on the air and in those MB home games. I tell all about it in my new book, "When Game Shows Ruled Daytime TV" My name is Norm Blumenthal (NB16@AOL.COM)

    ReplyDelete
  9. A formidable champion for all the nation's children. Click www.gofastek.com for more information.

    Cindy
    www.gofastek.com

    ReplyDelete
  10. spot on with this write-up, i like the way you discuss the things. i'm impressed, i must say. i'll probably be back again to read more. thanks for sharing this with us.

    Lee Shin
    www.trendone.net

    ReplyDelete
  11. i'm having a good time reading your article. i'll come back to read more of your nifty articles. keep posting.

    www.joeydavila.net

    ReplyDelete
  12. I like your post a lot! You should write some more on this!Great job coming with such terrific post!


    mocsbar.com

    ReplyDelete