The Toys That Made Us was the best business show on television in 2019.
For those who haven’t seen it, the premise of the Netflix original series is deceptively simple and easily captured in its catchy retro theme song: “It’s a continuing documentary series about the toys that we all know. Master creations that last for generations that we still cannot let go. Little molded figures that gave us big dreams, we go back in time and behind the scenes.” I say it’s ‘deceptively simple’ because it’s far more nuanced than just a nostalgia trip.
I started watching The Toys That Made Us with my son to show him what toys I had as a kid. I quickly realized that it’s actually akin to a highly entertaining series of MBA-level seminars about marketing and advertising, brand strategy, content creation, and storytelling. Because the toys profiled are some of the most successful in history, each episode is a helpful business case study retold as a heroic origin story. Here are five lessons I learned from the show:
1. Really good people make really good toys
Even more than the toys themselves, the real stars of the series are the battle-hardened veterans of the toy wars – the employees and executives of the world’s most iconic toy companies. Most have long since retired from the frontlines, but the pride and pressures (not to mention their gripes and grudges) are still raw just below the surface. Just listening to them talk about how they came up with ideas is a masterclass about creative design, branding, and content.
2. Necessity is the father/mother of invention
The biggest revelation for me was how chaotic the creative process often was. Sometimes toy companies started with an idea, maybe a movie or comic book, possibly a toy that was already being made in Japan. More often than not, though, they were simply tasked with filling a gap in a product line – as in “we need a new action figure toy.” Ideas came from anywhere and anyone, and the companies who took the biggest risks earned the biggest rewards.
3. To sell something you need to tell stories
Everyone interviewed said their most important job was selling plastic products to the most fickle and finicky customers of all and that, to do so, they needed to invest a lot of time in telling stories. Even the mightiest toys had to be morphed into powerful content ranging from comic books to Saturday morning cartoons to feature films. That, in turn, increased demand for new toys which drove a design cycle that was affectionately christened “feeding the beast.”
4. It’s the stories that make us want to watch
The Toys That Made Us could have fallen into the trap of those boringly dry “how’d they do it” shows we watch on airplanes when we can’t find anything else. It avoids that fate thanks to creative and comedic storytelling which turns corporate bureaucracy into compelling biography. Using cameos, catchphrases and callbacks to earlier episodes, it weaves together a narrative arc showing how interconnected (and cutthroat) the toy industry was in its prime.
5. Behind every success there are setbacks
Perhaps the show’s most important lesson is even the best get it wrong sometimes. Show creator Brian Volk-Weiss has said he’s always been interested in failure, and in documenting the decisions which led to the biggest toy blockbusters of the past fifty years he found every success story had at least one major setback. To that end, every episode showcases missed opportunities and lapses of judgement – but, more importantly, how they found their footing.
The Toys That Made Us is the best business show on T.V. because, like the cultural phenomena it profiles, it uses creative storytelling to bring compelling characters to life. The show’s genius is seen in episodes like one about a certain beloved and iconic equine toy, which draws a contrast between rainbows full of warm pastel colors and the cold, hard corporate realities with a fittingly Shermanesque quote from one of its key designers: “The toy business is Hell.”