Mark Von Ohlen has been Brand Manager at Topps for almost two years now. Originally hired on by Topps to be the Brand Manager over the Star Wars brand, he is now the Topps Brand Manager, Entertainment. He oversees all Topps non-sport brands for Topps; Star Wars, Wacky Packages, Mars Attacks, Walking Dead, Preacher, WWE, Doctor Who, and of course GPK. Working hand in hand with Colin Walton, they are responsible for all Garbage Pail Kids sets/merchandise for Topps. Mark was nice enough to agree to an e-mail interview on the eve of the launch of the next GPK set, Prime Slime Trashy TV. Mark talks about his background, and what his job entails at Topps. He shares some hints about what can be found in the next GPK set. He shares his thoughts on the Direct to Print movement at Topps, and what the future holds there. Mark also shares what’s being offered at this year’s New York Comic Con. And yes, I asked him about Chrome OS 3….
GPKNews – Thanks for the interview, Mark! Being Brand Manager at Topps is a dream job most collectors would love to have! How did you get started with Topps?
Mark Von Ohlen – I’ve been working in marketing for almost a decade, and after my last job I decided that I wanted to work on something I was really passionate about. I am a big geek and pop culture junkie. I go to conventions all the time. Last year I went to 15 shows. This year I’m scaling back slightly – only going to 12! I’m an avid collector of action figures, trading cards and other collectibles. You should see my office; it’s lined with autographed photos, mini figures and binders of cards. When I found out Topps was hiring, I jumped at the chance to work on Star Wars! It’s every geeky kid’s dream. We had a fantastic year with several great new product launches plus of course the new movie. Then, I got to launch the first ever Topps Doctor Who trading cards in the US. As a Whovian, this was seriously a dream come true. Now I’m working on GPK, another brand I grew up with and love tremendously. It’s been a real thrill so far.
GPKNews – Can you share with collectors what a Brand Manager does? Specifically when it comes to GPK, how are you involved with the brand?
MVO – The brand manager has a long list of responsibilities. It’s kind of like being a movie producer because no one really knows what you do, but you kind of do everything. Brand managers are generalists, typically, meaning they have a degree in business management or, in my case Economics and Business, and work with specialists who execute the strategy. As the brand manager, I work with my fantastic associate brand manager, Colin Walton, on product development and marketing. Fans of GPK know Colin as he has been the editor/art director/artist relationship manager/brand expert working on GPK for almost a decade. I would seriously be lost without him. He and I will ideate a product (ie the upcoming GPK Adam-geddon). From there, we will decide on the design elements, what insert cards should be included, sku configuration and pricing, exclusive content, etc. From there Colin works closely with the incredibly talent pool of artists to sketch the jokes and images for the cards. We review them together, and then the ones we like get painted. We also decide on any retailer exclusives and partner with the Sales team on retailer executions. We also decide on marketing initiatives (what conventions to attend, what ads to place, etc). It’s like running your own business on a brand by brand basis.
GPKNews – How aware were you of Garbage Pail Kids when you were a kid? Did you collect back then? I know you are a big Star Wars fan, what do you collect now?
I had so many GPK stickers when I was a kid, and used to put them all over the walls in my house. It used to make my parents so angry, but they kept buying them for me anyway! I collected a lot of entertainment trading cards when I was young. I had several Star Wars sets, ET, Ninja Turtles, WWE and even a Cyndi Lauper card set. I’m still a big geek and have a pretty massive trading card and action figure collection.
GPKNews – Garbage Pail Kids Prime Slime Trashy TV is set to launch in early October. The recent GPK sets have all been themed sets. How did you guys decide the time was right to do a GPK set based on parodies of current TV shows?
MVO – The themed sets for GPK are so much fun. The American As Apple Pie set really tapped into this incredible year-long conversation in the pop culture surrounding the election. It was basically the catalyst for our Election pulse program running on Topps.com right now. We have so much more planned between now and the election! Regarding the TV set, we really are living in the new age of content. An age where Amazon can win Emmys! Seriously, think back even 2 years ago. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? But there’s more content than ever. Not necessarily great content, but certainly more, so we felt TV (in all its forms) was the right medium to make fun of as it undergoes this incredible transformation.
GPKNews – I know you don’t want to reveal any secrets about the new set yet, but do you have a favorite card in the set? Maybe something that really caught your eye?
MVO – I reviewed every card with Colin and honestly this theme is spectacular. The artists really gave us fantastic paintings. As someone who watches too much TV, the whole set a lot of fun. Some standouts: we have a Twin Peaks card that I love! (One of my favorite shows.) We have Kathy Lee and Hoda behaving exactly as you might expect. My name ‘Mark’ is finally back on a card and with a TV show that I’ve loved for the past 20 years (hint). Plus we’ve got classic shows, current favorites and even returning series like The X-Files, which is one of Colin’s favorites.
GPKNews – I know Topps is already working on the next GPK set, Adam-Geddon, set to release in Jan. 2017. Collectors seem to be excited about that theme. Is there anything you can share with collectors about what to expect with the Adam-Geddon set?
MVO – Get ready. This one is over the top ridiculous. Adam-geddon is explosive, literally, and one of our more hilariously violent sets in recent years. In many ways it feels like vintage GPK because it delivers on that shock factor that the original fans loved.
GPKNews – A change that jumped out to me when looking at the sell sheets for Adam-Geddon was the pack configuration across the board. Hobby/Retail packs moved down to 8 cards, while Collector packs up to 8 cards. I noticed prices on pre-orders are lower than past releases. Was the reason for this change to get to a lower price point?
MVO – We lowered the pricing in retail to $2 packs to create a lower barrier to entry for new consumers. We’re always trying to reach new collectors and felt the current pricing structure was a bit prohibitive. We also streamlined the hobby sku to eliminate confusion about content.
GPKNews – What does the future hold for the Garbage Pail Kids brand? Can you share with us any other plans for 2017?
MVO – Well, we still have 3 more months of 2016 to get through first, and they are going to be insane. With the election imminent you can expect us to be even more engaged in the political conversation, as we’ll have several more releases between now and Election Day. We also have something special planned for Inauguration Day that we’ll reveal toward the end of the year. As for 2017, I expect to continue our pop culture Topps.com products where we make fun of celebrities, music, movies and TV. We saw some amazing press coverage regarding our music sets, in particular the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and Riot Fest. We’re looking to do more of those partnerships.
GPKNews – I know you attend conventions like San Diego Comic Con, Star Wars shows, the National Sports Collectors show, etc. Do you enjoy meeting with fans and hearing what and how they collect?
MVO – I love going to conventions. I attend between 10-15 per year. Only a few are ‘official’ for Topps like SDCC, NYCC, The National. The rest of the time it’s just me walking around meeting celebrities and artists. I love meeting the fans and always want to hear from them. We’re making products for the fans so the more information we can get from them, the better we can serve the needs. Luckily the GPK fandom is not shy so I’m pretty up-to-date on their requests. I would love to do a Topps sponsored GPK con at some point, and I know there is interest there. We haven’t been able to make it work yet but maybe sometime in 2017?
GPKNews – Topps offered Jumbo GPK sets at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. I know Topps usually has a presence at the New York Comic Con in October. Any show exclusives from Topps planned for the event? Anything GPK related going to be offered?
MVO – Yes, we will have some pop culture oriented exclusives at NYCC. We branded them as GPK Prime Slim Trashy TV and we parody Star Trek, Powerpuff Girls, The Flash, Big Bang Theory, and My Little Pony. It’s 5 new paintings (so 10 stickers total counting the A&B names) for $29.99. You can find us at NYCC Booth #454 with the GPK exclusives plus a Star Wars Rogue One exclusive card set, giveaways, and some surprises.
GPKNews – Funko recently started offering GPK Series 2 to distributors for a Nov. release. Collectors are excited to see the GPK license agreement continue with Funko. I know during 2015 there were many license tie-ins with the 30th anniversary of GPK. Is Topps still open to licensing the GPK brand for merchandise? Anything cool in the pipeline?
MVO – Yes we are thrilled with the Funko items! Aren’t they awesome? In fact they did exclusive GPK Election Funko’s as well featuring Donald Dumpty and Billary Hillary. We are still continuing to explore new licensing opportunities but nothing new to announce at the moment.
GPKNews – A popular topic with collectors, really since 2014 and the last Chrome GPK release, has been, will there be a GPK Chrome OS 3 release? I know there have been some comments on Facebook that you guys are looking into the possibility. Can you share your thoughts on Chrome OS 3 getting a release? Maybe as an online exclusive? Would a Kickstarter type of campaign work for something like this?
MVO – This is every GPK super fan’s favorite topic. I honestly get emails every week on this product, but Chrome is really tricky. It’s an expensive technology, and it’s not for everyone. Our goal on GPK is to expand the brand to a wider audience. That’s the reason we’ve done the themed sets (American Pie, Trashy TV), the Election items, the Pop Culture parodies (The Grammys, The Academy Awards, etc) and partnerships (Riot Fest) and expanded licensing (Funko). Obviously as we are looking for new fans we don’t want to leave our super-fans behind so we are exploring ways to make Chrome a reality. We don’t have a solution yet, but we’re open to ideas. I wouldn’t rule out Kickstarter, but maybe even something as simple as a preorder that requires a minimum purchase quantity before we go to print. If we hit the number, it happens and if we don’t, it doesn’t get made. Would fans be okay with something like that?
GPKNews – Print on Demand products has been a focus for Topps as a whole this year. Topps Now on the baseball side, the Preacher cards, UFC, WWE, are just a few. I want to say the trend might have actually started with the Garbage Pail Kids online sets released early this year. Most of the GPK online sets have been released under the Apple Pie theme. Will new sets continue being offered by Topps? If so, for how long? Through the presidential election? Are there any plans on offering online sets under the Trashy TV theme after the release of that set?
MVO – Thank you for giving credit where credit is due. The GPK Election pulse was basically the ‘beta’ version of Topps Now. And the GPK community delivered! Print on demand is happening because of this awesome group of people. We’re looking to expand it into more properties as well. For GPK, we have 3 more months of election madness ahead so more is on the way. In 2017, we’ll continue to parody pop culture (music, movies and more) and try out some new territories as well. We have a few ideas for Trashy TV – would you guys like a GPK take on classic Christmas Specials?
MVO – Our industry is changing significantly and in many ways catching up to where media is going. Think about your TV viewing habits. At one point it was crazy to think people would record shows and zap commercials, but now that’s standard practice. Binge watching has also become the new norm. I can tell you I watched ‘Stanger Things’ in one Saturday. As media consumption becomes customized or immediate so must trading cards. Print on demand is a great solution to this. I also think it eliminated some of the hurdle of not knowing what you’re getting. Trading cards are the original blind bag purchase, which while it’s all the rage in 3D mini figures today, there’s also a consumer base who just wants to know what they’re getting. I love the chase, the hunt, the gamble, but I’ll also open my wallet for something specific that I really want to avoid the ‘work’ of hunting it down. That’s where print on demand really delivers. It also allows us to be very in-the-moment. Topps Now captures moments right when they happen. GPK has been doing that all year with the election. If you play any of the Topps card trader apps, that’s the same experience. The immediacy and relevance is maximized with print on demand and digital. We’re looking at the 2017 plan for GPK and seeing how we can really play in this space even more than 2016 as it will allow us to be in the moment. This doesn’t mean ‘traditional’ trading cards are going away. Tactile collectibles are always going to be important and we intend for our full-series sets to always be around.
GPKNews – At the 2015 National Sport Collector’s Convention, during the Topps Q&A session, there was discussion around pack searching in retail stores like Target/Wal-Mart. Topps representatives mentioned Topps was working on packaging that would make searching packs harder. This is a very common frustration with collectors who walk in to Target and see the local pack searcher “fingering” the packs. GPK Jumbo Retail packs were “see through” for the Apple Pie release. Is there any work going on at Topps to help combat pack searching?
MVO – Yes, Topps is working on something but I can’t reveal any details right now. My #1 recommendation for fans looking for hits and high value items is to shop in hobby or buy full boxes or cases, as that is where you get your guarantees anyway. The odds are really long in mass for hits unless you pick up a $20 value box which usually comes with a manufactured relic card. The retail market is really for the casual collector and to fill in your base and inserts as the price per pack is lower.
GPKNews – Have you had a chance to see the 30 Years of Garbage documentary Jeff Zapata and Joe Simko directed? If so what were your thoughts on the film?
MVO – Yes, I was at the premiere in NYC. It was so great to meet those guys in person. Colin works with them regularly and they were instrumental in bringing GPK back to the current fan base. I personally loved the film and learned quite a few things that I didn’t know about the history of the brand. I hope we’re still talking about GPK when it comes time for the 50th!
GPKNews – You are in charge of classic brands for Topps that in many cases collectors have been collecting for decades. What are your thoughts about being part of this Topps history?
MVO – I feel the weight of this role every day; and I mean that in the most positive way. There’s an incredible legacy that people who worked at Topps before me have left and I want to add to that. The reason I wanted to work for Topps in the first place was to be part of something I truly love. Being the brand manager working on awesome brands like Star Wars and GPK is a dream come true. I hope the fans see the passion I have, and are as excited by everything we’re doing with these brands now as they were years ago.
GPKNews – Finally, what’s your favorite Garbage Pail Kid?
MVO – I have Monstrous Mark on the door of my office. 😉