Interview: Soula Zavacopoulos of The London Studio talks originality in the greetings cards space

Soula Zavacopoulos is an award-winning artist and designer and founder of The London Studio, a specialist in the greetings cards category, and a growing name in the wider design-led licensing community, thanks to an ever-expanding portfolio led by Blonde Sheep Licensing.

Kicking off’s 2020 coverage, we chat with Zavacopoulos about the importance of originality in a sector increasingly fraught with ‘copycats’, the ongoing battle for shelf space at retail, and how licensing is helping to cast designers and artists into the spotlight.

Hello Soula, it’s an interesting portfolio you have to your name at The London Studio, can you talk us through your style?

My work is very varied, I don’t have one style like many creatives, instead I develop very different properties ranging from inspirational, wellbeing ranges to quirky humour properties. I also like to develop ranges that are unusual and have not been seen before in the market – like my secret message range, For Your Eyes Only. I really love coming up with new ideas that are different to what’s already out there and I get a buzz out of seeing the surprise and delight in people’s faces.

Could you give us a bit of background as to what you do and deliver to the greetings cards sector and the wider design space?

My background is in graphic design and advertising. My clients were big blue-chips and it helped me develop my ability to work many different styles, observe what the needs of the market are and analyse data to enable me to produce work that was most likely to be successful. The results of my work were always measured and I always analysed the data to help me develop even more effective and commercially successful products. It’s meant that the work I create serves a purpose and fills a retail need, rather than just being “nice design” so it’s more commercially successful in the market.

Soon after setting up my design company, The London Studio, I was lucky enough to be featured in the national press and my work attracted a number of celebrity fans and support including international popstars Boy George, Dannii Minogue, and Peter Andre, supermodel Caprice, as well as BBC Dragon and retail magnate Theo Paphitis. I was honoured when I won his SBS Award and he even provided a testimonial for the cover of my first book.

I went on to win a number of other awards, from retail awards, to design awards and industry awards such as The Gift of The Year Award. This helped my work gain recognition and my design studio became ranked in the top 20 most creative & innovative businesses in the UK and named one of the UK’s Top 100 Businesses in the Smarta100 Awards.

I started publishing my own greeting cards, together with licensing properties into other categories such as gifting and tableware. Through my own publishing company and through licensing I supplied some of the biggest names in retail, from high end stores Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, to grocers including Tesco, Waitrose, ASDA & Sainsburys, as well as high street chains, including Urban Outfitters, Marks & Spencer, Paperchase, Waterstones & WHSmith.

I have been lucky enough to have my work displayed at museums and galleries including the Design Museum in London, and I was headhunted by the Licensing Committee for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Can you talk us through the past 12 months within licensing for you? What kind of reception have you had? 

I license my greeting card designs to publishers including Woodmansterne, Pigment Productions, Emotional Rescue, Ling and Paperlink. I work with many as each of my ranges is very different in style and genre; they are each aimed at different markets and different audiences, so depending on the range, they’re supplied across the whole retail spectrum.

With Blonde Sheep Licensing I am growing the core licensing business across more key categories including social stationery, gifts, books tableware, homeware and apparel. I’ve had a lot of success with my quirky or humorous ranges, which have won awards and been featured in the national press. One such property that is gaining a lot of traction at the moment is For Your Eyes Only.

It’s a funny and naughty range that incorporates a hidden secret message that is revealed either by special magic glasses or by heat changing ink (depending on the product). The range started life as a greeting card range which smashed sales targets and sold out. With two years of proven commercial success as cards under its belt, For Your Eyes Only was licensed into a gift book and released by Summersdale Publishers (part of Hachette).

The range is also being developed into gifts by Widdop & Co and include mugs where the hidden message is revealed when hot water is poured into the mug, or sequinned cushions where the funny secret message is revealed by brushing the sequins in the other direction.

In stark contrast in style to For Your Eyes Only is my wellbeing property: Dream Big! This too is gaining traction in the licensing arena, yet instead of its focus being humour, this range focusses on the ever growing trend for mindfulness and wellbeing.

It uses a combination of contemporary illustration combined with motivational quotes to inspire us to live life to the full. The language is uplifting, inspiring and positive, to make people feel happy and inspired to live our best life.

Dream Big! has just been shortlisted in the Gift of the Year Award 2020 – the Diary and Happiness Planner wowed the judges and is part of a social stationery collection of Dream Big! products licensed to and published by BrownTrout Publishers.

What is the current health of the greetings cards market? What have been some of the biggest challenges in the space and how are you utilising your brand to overcome these?

One of the biggest challenges at the moment is how the high street has been suffering in today’s challenging market and therefore retail buyers are not buying as much as they once did; they are also hesitant to take risks on properties that are not as well known.

The way I overcome this is by providing data to the retailers – namely, I test my designs before approaching retailers and I use the subsequent sales data to determine which designs are the top sellers and which we might drop, to ensure that I have a commercially successful range before launching it to retailers.

This pre-testing stage gives the retailer the safest possible offering, rather than them having to take a punt and see if the public buy.

And what does The London Studio bring to the space?

I would say originality. There is a lot of copying going on in the industry, but I try to counter that by thinking up original ideas and looking at where there are gaps in the market that I can fill to bring out commercially successful ranges.

My background of analysing data to help build successful products and campaigns is also useful, as I use this in my work, along with the testing I mentioned, to launch ranges that do well.

I have a lot of different ranges and new ideas, so as the market changes, so too do my designs and ideas. I try to keep ahead of the trends and forecast what people may want – I guessed the wellbeing trend well before it even became a trend for example.

What are you setting out to achieve in the licensing space? Why is this an important sector for The London Studio?

Licensing is important as it’s a way to expand my ranges and reach more people, sharing humour and wellbeing through the different ranges.  I don’t have the time or expertise to handle everything by myself, so I appointed Blonde Sheep Licensing as my agent to handle licensing outside of greeting cards.   

I changed my greeting cards business model four years ago from publishing to licensing as I wanted to concentrate on what I enjoyed most – namely, focus on my art and design work, coming up with ideas for new properties, brands and ranges. So licensing is incredibly important to me, as it is how I now get these ranges to market.

What does the coming year have in store for The London Studio?

Through my agent, Blonde Sheep Licensing, we plan to develop Dream Big! further – the wellbeing movement is growing, and this is a strong range that will help people. I love the idea of doing something positive through my work and making a difference, so I will work hard on Dream Big! as it’s set to help people.

We will also will expand on my humour ranges. I feel honoured that my work in humour has been well received, not just with awards but it is regularly featured in the national press and on television, including the BBC, ITV’s This Morning, The Times, The Guardian, The London Evening Standard, The Sun, The Independent on Sunday, At Home magazine, Stylist and OK Magazine. Humour is an area that is growing in retail as well, so it’s definitely a focus for me in the coming year.

I’m also working on some new book ideas – again, with a humour focus, and also growing my wellness and inspiration range, Dream Big! to help people live happier lives.