Nickelodeon Perfects Big Kid Business

For expansion outside of the US, programming juggernaut Nickelodeon turns to Lourdes Arocho, VP of international consumer products, who excels at putting fun into the business of play

New York City is where Lourdes Arocho lives and works, but it’s far from the only city in her scope on any given day. The massive cable network where Arocho has worked since 2007 just keeps on growing.

The network, of course, is Nickelodeon. When Hispanic Executive first profiled Arocho in 2012, she was VP of toys and games for its consumer products division. The following year, she took on a newly created, similar role for the network, but in an international capacity. “While I’m still focused on our global partnerships with toy companies like Mattel, Lego, and Mega Bloks, it’s about managing the relationships outside the US now,” she explains.

Those would include many more relationships than originally expected, as it turns out. Shortly after shifting to an international focus, Arocho’s role expanded to include specific European-based partnerships for key strategies and initiatives. A few months later, the categories of “food” and “health/beauty” were added—and even more recently, her role was expanded to include publishing and home entertainment. “It all just changed again,” she says of her updated responsibilities with an incredulous laugh.

Consequentially, Arocho oversees an ever-evolving team. She went from working with 12 in her previous Nickelodeon position to only two when the international role began, but her new team has grown with each corresponding expansion—currently, it’s back up to 12. And, by necessity, it’s geographically scattered, so adaptability and strong communication skills have never been more imperative to Arocho.

“For me, that means instead of those drive-by hallway conversations you might have [with someone working in the same building], I need to make sure I’m constantly engaging at every opportunity I can,” Arocho says. “I take the time to take into consideration the context of each situation, and the individual… I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all strategy to leadership, especially when leading such a diverse team as this.”

Nickelodeon’s journey and progression over the past two decades has indeed been diverse; the channel is now seen in more than 160 countries and territories, including Turkey, Pakistan, the Philippines, Greece, and Brazil. A country manager presides over each local channel, overseeing consumer products. The people who report to Arocho sit in those markets and hold different roles reporting within the international licensing structure. “It’s very important for me to hear from those who report to me with that extra piece [of knowledge], hearing not only what their expectations are, but collaborating on the right timing,” says Arocho. “I need those insights.”

In her line of work, “the right timing” is all about consumer products—and when, in the calendar year, they are available for sale to the public in each part of the world.

“Prior to this, I only had to worry about one market, but now I have to think about how this rolls out market by market,” she says. “I have to make sure to inform our key global partners of the rollouts and what key content looks like, making sure they’re not only supported from a content standpoint, but from other lines of business so [that] we have a coordinated effort across retail.”

“STEM is all the rage right now with parents, so all this new content gives us an opportunity to create really great product lines to support it.” –Lourdes Arocho

When it comes to the Nickelodeon programs that generate the majority of consumer products, the following properties take the top honors:

Dora the Explorer/Dora and Friends. On the air since 2000, the Peabody-winning Dora the Explorer has long been popular with the preschool crowd. The animated hit is all about adventures, challenges, and problem-solving, led by the bilingual main character Dora, her talking purple backpack, and animal buddies such as a monkey named Boots. In 2014, Dora the Explorer was joined by the spinoff Dora and Friends, featuring a slightly older Dora living in a city, going to school, and at the center of a group of close friends. “Instead of animal friends, she has real human friends,” Arocho explains. “Instead of the rain forest, she’s in a new city. Instead of ‘map,’ she has a map app on her smartphone. So that gives us new elements and new characters, and we’re able to take that and translate it into a new refreshed look for consumer products.”

SpongeBob SquarePants. The animated antics of he who “lives in a pineapple under the sea” and his wide assortment of friends will air its 200th episode this year, having been a part of Nickelodeon since 1999. DVDs, video games, and theme park rides are just a small fraction of all the SpongeBob merchandising that has hit the shelves over the past decade and a half, resulting in some $8 billion in revenue thus far. And if all that weren’t enough evidence of SpongeBob’s ongoing success, consider this: Sponge Out of Water, the franchise’s latest feature film release, has netted more than $300 million at the box office this year.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With its parent company, Viacom, acquiring rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 2009, Nickelodeon developed a CG-animated reboot of the late-1980s smash hit by 2012. Based on the $3 billion it has already generated since then, success might be even sweeter the second time around. As Arocho acknowledges, the fact that the original Turtles audience is now grown up and raising kids of their own is a huge bonus. Playmates Toys, which developed action figures and related products during the first TMNT go-around, is now partnered with Nickelodeon in the updated version—and has in fact produced a line called Half Shell Heroes for the preschool set. It’s “what we call in the industry ‘pre-cool,’” Arocho says. “It’s for the kid that loves the Turtles, loves the camaraderie, loves the brotherhood, but is really too young for action figures. Or maybe Mom is uncomfortable with them being in the action figure aisle. This is a chunkier toy for small hands, geared toward that younger kid. It’s phenomenal looking. I’m really proud of what Playmates has done.”

Two other, relatively new Nickelodeon series are also important to Arocho for their success and consumer product potential. Paw Patrol, a preschool-target show about the adventures of a pack of seven pups, hit the airwaves in the fall of 2013. And Blaze and the Monster Machines, which features talking monster trucks and a tech-savvy eight-year-old named AJ, launched in fall 2014 and is already developing a following. Arocho points to Blaze’s encouragement of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills when explaining its success, and anticipates it will play a hand in successful product marketing as well. “STEM is all the rage right now with parents,” she says, “so all this new content gives us an opportunity to create really great product lines to support it.”

While citing toy and game development as the best parts of her job—“it’s really fun seeing something go through all the stages, from a rough concept to a 3-D mold,” she says—Arocho is devoted to understanding the need for all the products she oversees to be in the right places at the right times, and how that fluctuates from country to country. “It’s rewarding to work with [country managers] hand in hand and learn their key challenges, key opportunities, and how our global partnerships will work within their brand strategies,” she says.

The key to reaching that reward? Connectivity. “I recently got feedback from a member of my team that’s based in the UK,” Arocho recalls. “She’s been in her role for a number of years and said to me, ‘I used to feel like I was in isolation, and I love that I don’t feel that way anymore.’”

“That, to me, was probably one of my best accomplishments all year,” she says. “Beyond all else.”