These are the times that try toy makers’ souls. Unless, that is, you’re sitting on one of the hottest toys to hit--and quickly disappear from--retailer shelves.
Jill Elikann Barad of Mattel has found herself in that position this Christmas. And last Christmas. And the one before that.
Barad, who two months ago was named president of Mattel’s domestic operations--a title she shares with former Tonka executive David M. Mauer--is the brains behind Mattel’s latest hit, the Magic Nursery doll. In Christmases past, Barad has found a very receptive audience for the Heart Family, Li’l Miss and P. J. Sparkles dolls, whose debuts she directed.
But more than anything, Barad is the woman who took Mattel’s favorite teen-ager by her well-manicured plastic hand and led Barbie into the 1980s and, she hopes, beyond.
Barad isn’t Barbie’s mother--that honor goes to Ruth Handler, one of Mattel’s founders--but in her nine years at Mattel, Barad certainly has filled the role of doting big sister. (Barad is 39 to Barbie’s 31, and wags have noted a certain physical resemblance between the two.)
“I don’t own Barbie,” Barad said during an interview at her doll-packed office in Mattel’s new El Segundo headquarters. “I’m just proud to be part of her world.”
Barad is by no means a one-woman band. Chairman and Chief Executive John W. Amerman and Robert Sansone, who in October stepped down as president of Mattel U.S.A. to spend more time on personal pursuits, engineered a corporate turnaround three years ago. Sansone remains with Mattel as a senior adviser to Amerman.
And analysts are looking for good things from Mauer, former president of Tonka’s U.S. toy group, who is expected to inject some life into the boys side of Mattel’s business. It has been languishing since the Masters of the Universe line fell from favor with the short set a few years back. Mauer will also handle games for boys and girls, Disney infant and preschool toys, corporate planning and systems.
But Barad, the highest-ranking woman in the toy business, has been responsible for the toy lines that have provided Mattel with much of its recent growth. And that primarily means Barbie and her friends, clothes and accessories. Barad also handles plush toys, activity toys, licensing, marketing services and entertainment.
“The results that Barbie has attained these last several years have been nothing shy of sensational,” said David S. Leibowitz, toy industry analyst for American Securities in New York, who likes to refer to the anatomically unlikely fashion doll as “the world’s first and only post-pubescent preteen.”
“You have to give credit where credit is due, and clearly management has assessed who is responsible for those results,” Leibowitz said. “Barbie will have a record year. Mattel likewise will have a record year.”
Mattel estimates that Barbie’s worldwide sales will hit $700 million this year. Last year’s total of $600 million represented nearly half the company’s revenue.
Barbie has held court in the Top 10 list of Toy and Hobby World magazine for years, editor Larry Carlat said. Her longevity in an industry where toy life spans can be brutally short is a testament to savvy marketing and merchandising, he said.
“It’s amazing to me that (Barbie) is in its 31st year,” Carlat said. “Obviously they’ve been pumping a lot of money into it.”
Last year brought heavy news media coverage of Barbie’s 30th birthday. This year Barad came up with the Barbie Summit to prove to the world that Barbie has a social conscience.
The summit, held in New York the week before Thanksgiving, brought together 40 children from 28 countries to attend workshops on the world’s problems. The four-day meeting culminated with a float ride for the participants in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The children, selected through an essay and picture-drawing contest, voted on how best to spend a $500,000 fund amassed from part of Barbie’s November sales.
“I think it was important to heighten the image of Barbie as being a brand that . . . cares about the lives of those who play with her,” Barad said. The children voted to spend the money to promote world peace.
“Mattel is doing very well, and it comes down to the way--as I see it--the girls side of the business has been doing, and Jill Barad has been instrumental in pushing the girls side of the business,” Carlat said. “I wouldn’t say she has Barbie to thank (for her quick rise at Mattel) because I think it’s really a reciprocal relationship. She’s done a lot to push the Barbie line.”
Barad got her start at Mattel in 1981 as a product manager. It was her re-entry into the business world after a hiatus to care for her son, Alexander, born 11 years ago. (Barad’s husband, Thomas, is senior vice president of production in Paramount Pictures’ motion picture group.)
Despite several management shake-ups, the next nine years brought seven promotions, including one in 1982 only a few weeks after Barad revealed that she was pregnant again. Her second son, Justin, is 8. Last year, she was named president of the girls and activity toys divisions, and her salary, bonus and other compensation grew to nearly $614,000.
Beyond Barbie, Barad has shepherded other successful dolls, the latest the Magic Nursery doll. It comes dressed in a paper homecoming gown that, when placed in water, disintegrates to reveal a packet proclaiming “It’s a Boy” or “It’s a Girl” and containing a new outfit.
“It’s very hard to find a void in the marketplace,” Barad said. “One thing no one had ever captured was that feeling of not knowing if it was going to be a boy or a girl.”
Mattel expects Magic Nursery, which debuted in September, to generate about $70 million in sales by year-end.
Barad is quick to credit those she works with for the success the toy lines have enjoyed. “It’s absolutely a team effort, probably more than most industries,” she said.
“If there’s anything that I do well, it’s in a morass of a lot of ideas--I don’t know if it’s intuition or experience or what--but I’ve been able to pick the best idea, the big idea from among 100. I’ve been right more than I’ve been wrong, so I guess that’s why I’m still here.”
Barad allows that her touch isn’t always golden.
At the beginning of her Mattel career, she was handed an unusual toy to market: two worms that, when thrown against a wall, would slowly crawl down. Barad dubbed the toy “A Bad Case of Worms.”
“Unfortunately, they crawled down in a very unattractive way,” she said. What’s more, she added, “I was responsible for that awful name.”
The toy bombed.
“Maybe that’s where I discovered that play value is so important,” she said.
Barad said her biggest disappointment was the Princess of Power, which she developed in 1985 as a female counterpart to the then-popular Masters of the Universe line. The idea behind the toy was “we can be heroic; we can have the power,’ ” Barad said. “All of the things that boys had enjoyed for so long.”
But sinewy She-Ra didn’t have the staying power of He-Man and his pals, although the toy did a respectable $200 million in two years.
As She-Ra faded, Barad came up with the executive Barbie, who went from pink power suit to glittery disco dress and back again. At last Barbie, who had held odd jobs since the mid-60s, had a career, and the ad campaign trumpeted: “We girls can do anything.”
“That was the start of my attempt to reposition Barbie as having substance,” Barad said. But Barbie still can be a bride, an Ice Capades star or a disco queen, allowing girls “to dream, to play out, to envision--not to be stifled or confined.”
With success comes pressures. There have been suggestions--even in a national magazine on one occasion--that Barad has used her good looks to advantage, and these hurt her “terribly,” she said.
“To assume that someone’s looks, their charm, their style--whatever you want to call it . . .,” Barad said, trailing off for a moment.
“That doesn’t speak to results, and they always do it to women. I see very handsome men in business with wonderful, successful companies. Does anyone ever say it’s because he’s so handsome that he got where he was? Of course not,” she said. “Look at the numbers.”
At the same time, Barad insists that she’s never felt handicapped in business because she is a woman. She has not, for example, bumped up against the much-discussed “glass ceiling,” the invisible barrier that keeps women from rising to the top of corporations.
“People want to hire people who deliver,” she said. “If you’re in a firm where you see that isn’t true, it’s the wrong firm.”
Barad admits to a constant struggle to balance a family and career. She tries to involve her children in her job, which requires long days and considerable traveling.
On Thanksgiving Day, as the Barbie Summit float rolled through the Macy’s parade, Barad was not monitoring her marketing success or tending to the bottom line. She took a rest from toy making and watched the parade from the sidelines with her two young sons.