Child's Play: Mattel's Neil Friedman Has Built a Career out of Toying Around-And Making Kids Smile

By Greenwood, Chelsea | Success, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Child's Play: Mattel's Neil Friedman Has Built a Career out of Toying Around-And Making Kids Smile


Greenwood, Chelsea, Success


We've all seen the Tom Hanks movie Big, right? A teenage boy magically wakes up as an adult, lands a job at a toy company and spends his days playing with prototypes. As president of the Mattel Brands division at Mattel Inc., Neil Friedman has his share of Big moments, when his office is strewn with toys and he's fiddling with new products around the clock. Of course, life isn't all play and no work for this industry veteran, but he admits the job keeps him a kid at heart.

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"It's just one of those industries that, if you really like it, it's really hard to go anywhere else because it's fun, it really keeps you young at heart and it brings smiles to the faces of kids," Friedman says.

Given his 37-year track record in the industry, it's no wonder he hasn't strayed. Friedman is credited with pioneering the fusion of technology and toys, revitalizing the Barbie brand and ushering in the "Elmo effect"--and that's just during his 12-year run with Mattel. He has also been named a Toy Industry Hall of Famer and an International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association's Hall of Famer, among other awards.

Now, Friedman, who turns 62 in August, presides over all Mattel, Fisher-Price and Radica brands--including such hits as Hot Wheels and Little People--in addition to toys by entertainment properties such as Disney/Pixar's Cars, Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street.

And, to think, this career was set in motion by a help-wanted ad. That's how the Rider University alum landed a job at Pennsylvania toy chain Lionel Leisure/Kiddie City, where he climbed his way up to become executive vice president and COO over the course of a decade. Next, he worked for such heavy hitters as Hasbro, Gerber and MCA/Universal before starting at Tyco Preschool in 1995.

At the time, Tyco Preschool had a new toy in the works for the 1996 holiday season: Tickle Me Elmo. "When you played with it the first time, it brought a smile to everyone's faces," Friedman remembers. "It was a magical surprise."

The toy went on to become a huge phenomenon that helped drive traffic to toy aisles early in the holiday season, a force now called the "Elmo effect." Friedman recalls visiting stores after Elmo's introduction and seeing women picking up stuffed animals and "squeezing them to see what they would do," he says. "It became very obvious that, by bringing these toys to life, we really hit a nerve for moms and kids. Because it became alive to them; what's technology to us is magic to a child- And that was really what set that [trend of combining technology and toys] off."

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Tyco Toys Inc. merged with Mattel in 1997, and they followed the success of Tickle Me Elmo with more advanced versions, such as T.M.X. Elmo in 2006 and Elmo Live in 2008. As president of Fisher-Price Brands from 1999-2005, Friedman took the trend a step further by creating technologically enhanced toys that not only entertain but educate, too, and have become a large part of Fisher-Prices core business.

Another coup for Friedman was revitalizing the floundering Barbie brand in 2006. The iconic doll--which turned 50 in 2009--"had been suffering from a lack of focus, a lack of excitement, and competition," he remembers. "I put one of my top marketeers on the business who is really good on structure, focus, getting back to the basics, instilling a business plan into the business, and he made incredible strides in structuring the business."

Then Friedman assembled a team of his top marketeers and creatives. "And when you take your best people who have a sense of style and a sense of relevance, on lop of your brand, it really makes a huge difference," he says. In 2006, Barbie saw its first year of growth in six years.

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Teamwork is a key component of Friedman's success at Mattel, he says--in fact, it's one of his "rules of the road. …

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