How does an 83-year-old toy company stay relevant in the digital age? David Allmark thinks he’s hit on the answer--and it’s not all about apps (though the iPhone does figure prominently). As the executive vice president of Fisher-Price, Mattel, Inc.’s largest brand, Allmark presides over the company’s innovative toys for tots by making sure that technology and old-fashioned fun play well together.
“A lot of people think about learning as just ABCs,” says Allmark. “But in ages 0-5 it is about social, cognitive, and physical development.” But how to maximize time preschoolers spend in mom’s minivan or dad’s shopping cart?
It didn’t require reinventing the virtual wheel. Allmark says the parents who take part in Fisher-Price’s PlayLab  proving ground for new products paved the way. Observing how they passed their smartphones to their toddlers, Allmark’s team hit on a way to integrate electronics into the learning process while solving a pain point for parents, too.
Like an OtterBox , the Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case  is a durable housing for iPhones that protects your spendy phone from spills and chews (not to mention your contacts list from unintended baby-texts). But F-P added apps to boost the learning quotient. To date, those apps have been downloaded nearly 3 million times, and Fisher-Price just extended the line to include an iPad case and the Apptivity Monkey . The stuffed simian is a tactile teaching toy on its own as well as a fuzzy surround for the phone. “We are embracing tech the way in which mum’s life is experienced,” adds Allmark.
T is for Traditional + Technology
Though these new toys pushed the company forward in the digital space, Allmark maintains Fisher-Price must stay true to its roots and not be tempted to turn every toy into a techie machine. “There is less time spent playing on the rug in front of the fire,” he admits. “So you have to make sure you satisfy the lifestyle evolution.” For Fisher-Price that means adding digital touches to new products while continuing to expand its array of more traditional licensed action figures (hello, Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Tank Engine), stuffed animals, and bath toys.
R is for Research and Reviews
To do this while continuing to develop new products, Allmark says it’s important to get feedback, not just from management, sales, and marketing, but from real users around the world. “We listen to consumers, we talk to mums and dads in the PlayLab facility, and we have another facility run by a PhD where we watch children play,” he explains.
Then there’s plenty of psychological and ethnographic research that delves deeper into the way children develop and how their homes affect their learning.
“Digital is a real enabler,” Allmark underscores again. But this time he means, “What keeps us real is talking to mum. She gives you instant feedback, both good and bad.”
C is for Crowdsourcing and Collaboration
Recently, Fisher-Price took a page from Procter & Gamble’s Connect+Develop  program and launched the MyFPideas.com  platform to crowdsource innovation from consumers. “We are open to the fact that someone else will come up with a great idea,” Allmark says, but points out that there is a formalized vetting process. That includes having an internal team scouring a database with 83 years' worth of toys to make sure it’s not already been done as well as tasking merchandisers and engineers with market research. Not only does it have to have an irresistible application, “it must fit within a price range relevant for our market.” Allmark admits, “Some innovation may outreach our business,” and may require a 3-5 year lag time until the technology becomes affordable enough to bake into a toy.
N is for Nimble
Allmark says that although Mattel counts a staff of 28,000 people in 43 countries and sells products in more than 150 nations, Fisher-Price is as agile as a company a quarter of the size. Though it usually takes about two years from an original concept to be stocked in stores, Allmark says this is where size becomes a secret weapon. “Because of our scale, we are working on a lot at one time and we are able to bring [some products] forward quickly if the need is there now.” He does point out that it also means Fisher-Price has to be mindful of resources, because an investment that flops can do so in a very big way.
B is for Balance
As the father of three children ages 11 to 17, Allmark has learned a lot about balance. He credits his wife for keeping the household running smoothly, as he’s often on the road, but emphasizes the importance of putting aside work when he is at home. “When you are there, be there,” he says, noting that his English upbringing gave him a better sense of how important holidays are to restore and recharge.
Likewise, he’s quick to note that parents can model a healthy balance between physical and digital worlds for their children. But sometimes it is about the screen. Television programs like Thomas the Tank Engine can provide a bridge to more traditional play, he says. “It gives the child the ability to stretch imagination. Thinking about stories [on TV] is equally important” to social and cognitive development.
L is for Leadership
Allmark looks back on his time as a 16-year-old waiting tables as a cornerstone of his management training. “I learned to deal with difficult people and how important it is to communicate and inspire.”
As such, he finds a balance between leading and getting out of the way at Fisher-Price. “I’m not a micro-manager. That doesn’t inspire innovation, because no one person can be the leader of innovative thoughts,” he says. Instead, he’s surrounded himself with a complementary team and keeps an open approach. “You’ve got to be honest about your skills and your strengths.”
[Image: Flickr user Greg Tee ]