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18 August 2021

How the Mr Men made their millions

When an ad man turned an idle doodle into a children’s book 50 years ago, it was the start of a phenomenal global brand.

By Amelia Tait

The official story is the simplest one. Fifty years ago, in a small village in Surrey, a little boy named Adam turned to his father at the breakfast table and asked, “Daddy, what does a tickle look like?” Roger Hargreaves was a creative man – the father-of-four had worked in advertising for more than 13 years – so he took out a notepad and pen and began to sketch an answer to appease his son. The resulting doodle had a little blue hat, long arms and a big smiley face. If you have had (or been) a child during the past 50 years, it’s likely you know the character well. That sketch became Mr Tickle, the founding father of the Mr Men and Little Miss books, which have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide.

Mr Tickle was published on 10 August 1971, and you’ll find a special 50th anniversary edition with a gold cover in the shops today. The first few pages of the anniversary book include the story of Mr Tickle’s origin, sketched out by Adam, who took over the series when his father died in 1988. There are now more than 90 Mr Men and Little Miss characters – from the rude to the bossy to the perfect to the tall – who have leapt off the page and on to cushions, mugs, lunch boxes, magnets, tote bags, T-shirts and even a £612 designer streetwear hoodie. There is Mr Glug the Evian mascot, launched in 2014, and Little Miss Miracle, who fronted a £225 moisturiser for the cosmetics brand La Mer in 2018.

In 2004 the Hargreaves family sold the rights to the characters to the media company Chorion for £28m; in 2011 the rights were sold again to the Japanese company Sanrio for an undisclosed sum. How did Mr Tickle become Mr Moneybags? How did Hargreaves’s creations take over the licensing world?

***

Apparently, the series may not have started with a question about a tickle at the breakfast table – at least according to John Malam, a children’s non-fiction author who wrote the biography of Roger Hargreaves for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. “Ultimately, that story is apocryphal,” Malam says. “It became too good to dispute and no doubt helped in the early marketing campaigns.” Malam suggests that Hargreaves created Mr Tickle while doodling at work (“Roger referred to them as doodles”) before meeting with Jack Thurman, director of the publisher Fabbri and Partners. The company launched the Mr Men series with six titles (Mr Bump, Mr Greedy, Mr Happy, Mr Nosey and Mr Sneeze joined Mr Tickle) priced at 20p each.

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The style of the books was, and remains, understated – Hargreaves himself once said, “I can’t draw properly so I have to keep it simple. I’m much too lazy to write a novel, so short stories are ideal for me.” Frank Cottrell-Boyce, author of award-winning children’s books including Millions, describes the Mr Men books as “democratic” – reminiscent of early-reader school books, with a visual simplicity that invites kids to draw the characters themselves. The writing is equally simple – or as Boyce puts it, “very heavy on the exclamation marks”.

“At their best, they celebrate eccentricity, difference and mental diversity,” he says. “At their worst, they imply that if you are different, you shouldn’t be.” Some of the stories are morality tales and others aren’t – Little Miss Chatterbox remains talkative at the end of her book, whereas Mr Nosy and Mr Messy are changed men by the end of theirs.

Five decades ago, did Fabbri know it had a hit on its hands? Joe Garrigan, the publisher’s financial controller from 1969 to 1972, is one of the last people still alive who can recall Hargreaves’s initial Mr Men pitch. “Jack Thurman called me in to have a look at Roger’s drawings, and little did I know that I was looking at a product that was going to be read by my own children, who weren’t yet born,” Garrigan says. He remembers Hargreaves as a “quiet, pleasant” man. On the record, he says of his first impression of the doodle, “I thought it was fantastic and was bound to be a success”; off the record, his answer is a little different. By 1981, 31 million copies of Mr Men and Little Miss books had been sold in the UK.

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[see also: The best children’s books of the summer]

Hargreaves’s background in advertising meant he quickly saw the potential for the characters to become a brand. He started his career in 1958 as a junior copywriter – four years later, he was working on whisky, tobacco and soft-drink brands, as well as campaigns for BP. By 1968 he was the creative director of Foote, Cone & Belding, working on Fry’s confectionery and Watney’s beer, and writing slogans such as “Emigrate to Canada Dry (for the sake of your Scotch)”. Hargreaves’s understanding of what Malam describes as “the power of brevity and the impact of a key line” links his commercial writing with the Mr Men books.

“The Mr Men characters were very much at the infancy of children’s licensed publishing,” Malam adds, “so they were creating the markets for themselves.” Hargreaves was inspired by the success of Snoopy in the US and began working with the licensing agency Copyright Promotions in 1974. The same year, BBC One broadcast the first Mr Men animated series, voiced by Arthur Lowe. By the early 1980s, there were an estimated 700 different Mr Men products, and in 1988, Hargreaves won a European licensing award for an “outstanding contribution to the licensing industry”.

***

While Michael Bond’s Paddington is currently celebrating its heritage at the British Library, the Museum of Brands in West London’s Notting Hill is hosting the “Mr Men Little Miss 50th Anniversary” exhibition. There you can see some of the earliest licensed Mr Men products, from bubble baths to plastic radios to the somewhat ironic Mr Greedy low-fat strawberry yogurt.

Jude Exley is editorial director for the Brands & Licensing team at Farshore, the HarperCollins imprint that publishes the Mr Men books. She has edited the series for the past 20 years. Exley explains that the brand hasn’t been kept alive merely through merchandising, but by stories that place old characters in new scenarios (as in Mr Impossible and the Easter Egg Hunt in 2015, and Mr Men Little Miss Happy Diwali in 2020). She says the characters have to be updated often: “You have to think about how you make them still have that nostalgic appeal, but make them feel relevant to audiences today, so that can be quite a juggle.”

A decade after Mr Tickle, Hargreaves created the first Little Miss character. The first five Little Miss books are a buffet of patronising gender stereotypes – bossy, naughty, neat, sunshine, tiny – and somehow there was room for both Little Miss Ditzy and Little Miss Scatterbrain long before Little Miss Brainy entered the scene. In 2018 Little Miss Inventor helped correct the course.

After Hargreaves died from a stroke aged 53, his son Adam created new characters such as Mr Cool and Little Miss Bad. Historians of our turbulent era might note that when the public was allowed to vote for two new characters earlier this year, they opted for Mr Calm and Little Miss Brave. “The Mr Men and Little Miss books are really good at being relatable and helping children to understand the world, emotions and personalities around them,” Exley says.

Since 1998, when Nielsen BookScan first started providing data for the book publishing industry, Roger and Adam Hargreaves have sold 22.3 million books in the UK, worth £49.6m. For comparison, 13.4 million Roald Dahl titles were sold in the same period. Julia Donaldson, the author of The Gruffalo, beats all the Mr Men and Little Miss books combined, with 37.8 million sales since 1998, worth £182m.

Exley, who also works on the Winnie the Pooh brand, says that with the Mr Men series there’s “more obvious humour and quick visual jokes” to work with, which helps with licensing. She also believes the brand today fits with Hargreaves’s original vision. When I ask about Evian’s Mr Glug, she says it’s a “continuation” of what Hargreaves started. “I think if it’s encouraging children to read, then it’s always going to be a plus.”

Yet plenty of Mr Men merchandise isn’t aimed at children – in recent years there’s been everything from Mr Grumpy tea towels to 2019’s four Spice Girls stories about Little Misses Ginger, Baby, Scary and Sporty (Exley admits that Adam didn’t know who the pop group were before drawing their characters). A 2018 study by Farshore titled “Media Use and Attitudes” found 51 per cent of those who bought Mr Men books in 2017 did so because of “fond memories of reading them as children”. There is an enormous nostalgia market for the brand, which blossomed when the entertainment group Chorion bought the rights.

“Fundamentally, I think two great things happened under Chorion,” says Ron Allen, executive vice-president of the television production and licensing company Silvergate Media, who worked on Mr Men while at Chorion (giant Mr Bump and Mr Greedy teddies used to sit in on meetings). First, the company launched a new television series, the Mr Men Show, in 2008 (there had been three previous series of Mr Men between the 1970s and 1990s), which Allen says grew the intellectual property (IP) globally. Second, Allen says he and his team helped the brand become “a vehicle for self-expression among young adults and teenagers”. Particularly popular were Little Miss Sunshine T-shirts, favoured by celebrities such as Britney Spears (Paris Hilton opted for Little Miss Christmas).

“That wasn’t through any kind of deliberate strategic placement. This was before the era of influencers,” Allen says. The appeal was organic. “I think once the IP has touched your life in some way, you don’t forget it.”

***

Today, the Mr Men operation is a tightly controlled PR machine that declined to put Adam Hargreaves or anyone from Sanrio forward for interview. Sanrio – a design and licensing company most famous for Hello Kitty – purchased the Mr Men brand from Chorion in 2011; though the price was undisclosed, Bloomberg estimated before the sale that Sanrio would be willing to spend £270m. (The TV show was dubbed into Japanese and broadcast in Japan in the 2000s, and there is even a Japan-exclusive character Little Miss Cawaii, a misspelling of the Japanese word for “cute”.) Since the Sanrio deal, Mr Men has collaborated with brands including Transport for London, Heathrow Airport, Marks & Spencer, Uniqlo, Keds, The Royal Mint, the streetwear label Lazy Oaf, the money transfer company World First and Doctor Who.

Today, more than a third of Brits own a Mr Men or Little Miss book – and it’s clear the characters have at least another 50 years ahead of them. Global domination is also on the cards: in Greece and Israel, year-on-year sales of Mr Men and Little Miss books have doubled since 2017. It may not have started with a tickle at the table, but Mr Tickle and his friends are present everywhere today, from breakfast to bedtime. “Luckily, we haven’t exhausted every emotion or characteristic in the world just yet,” says Exley, “so we’ve still got more ideas to come.”

[see also: Bridget Jones and the Blair years]

This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal