A Sit Down with Former G.I. Joe Brand Manager Mark Weber: Coming Full Circle

Mark Weber G.I. Joe Interview

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to have a petition launched in hopes of helping you land a dream job? There’s no wondering for former G.I. Joe Brand Manager Mark Weber, whose name is back in the hat to return to a brand he’s loved all his life.

Mark was the last brand manager for G.I. Joe until the position was phased out in April 2017. The reason? Hasbro had shelved the return of G.I. Joe for several more years after a new movie following G.I. Joe: Retaliation never materialized.

Today Mark is still active in the toy industry as a consultant and has tried returning to Hasbro a few times since departing. It wasn’t long after Hasbro posted a job opening for a Senior Manager of Global Brand Development and Marketing for the G.I. Joe and Micronauts brands that G.I. Joe fans leapt into action and began a Change.org petition to aid Mark in landing the position.

Mark has already publicly stated that he’s applied. Whether the petition – currently at 699 votes of 1,000 needed at the time of this article — has any impact on the decision-making process remains to be seen. It certainly can’t hurt for Hasbro executives to see the fan backing and appreciation for Mark considering there are 92 applicants through the LinkedIn listing alone.

Even with Toy Fair 2019 mere days away, Mark took time out of his busy schedule to answer a slew of questions we threw his direction about his thought process, G.I. Joe and more. We thank him for his answers and wish him the best of luck in returning to the conflict between G.I. Joe and Cobra.

Let’s step back to your time prior to joining Hasbro’s G.I. Joe team in late 2014. Did you continue to follow the brand as an adult?

1989 was the end of my G.I. Joe childhood, as the Phantom X-19 was the final toy I asked to get for Christmas. I was 15 years old and starting to save for a car. I kept tabs on the brand through the years (even buying a significantly discounted Cobra Detonator in 1993) and picked up the TRU re-launch stuff in 1998. As a college graduate with a girlfriend, I could spend money on whatever I wanted! eBay was just getting off the ground and I was able to backfill almost everything I wanted from the 1989-1994 years.

Phantom X-19

Phantom X-19 (via YoJoe.com)

I collected everything that came out after that with the exception of the Sigma Six stuff. I thought they were cool looking and I wished the line well, but I wasn’t interested in stretching my collection to include a different sized toy.

I enjoyed the Devils’ Due comic book line, and collected every bit of it before following the comic over to IDW. I’ve been a huge fan of the brand since 1982, when I would race Tim Roberts to Longs Drugs to snag the lone copy of Larry Hama’s “A Real American Hero” G.I. Joe comic off the spinner rack.

You’ve mentioned online a “sideways” path to becoming the brand manager for G.I. Joe. Can you tell us a little bit about that path and whether that position was one you had hoped to one day step into?

It’s actually my path to brand management that went a little sideways. I graduated from Arizona State in 1998 with a degree in Broadcasting, and worked as a show producer and update anchor on Sports Radio stations in Phoenix and Washington D.C.

After a couple years in the nation’s capital, my wife started to feel the pull to move back closer to her family in Arizona. While looking for media jobs in the area, I spotted McFarlane toys was trying to fill a “sports journalist” position. They wanted local candidates only, but I asked them to consider me a local candidate and offered to front my own airfare and accommodations around a prospective interview.  I landed the job, which was mainly creating and delivering daily content for their company-hosted message boards and also staffing their booths at sports events like the NFL Experience and MLB FanFest. It morphed quickly into a brand management position.

I worked there for nine years before applying for a G.I. Joe position at Hasbro in late 2011. The Joe position was actually lower than my current one at McFarlane, so Hasbro asked me if I’d be interested in a role one step up on the Transformers team.

A few interviews later I was the new Manager of Global Brand Development for the Transformers franchise. I spent two-and-a-half years on Transformers and loved every minute of it. I inherited the Generations brand when it was just introducing their Voyager scale and offering about 20 toys a year (including exclusives). I was responsible for the additions of the Legends, Leader, and Titan scale figures, the Thrilling 30 campaign, and the Combiner Wars program.

I got to work with John Barber and IDW and a couple of my story suggestions (killing Bumblebee and Megatron the Autobot) became major events in their outstanding comics. My Fan Built Bot poll delivered Windblade, the most resonant new character in years.

In late 2014, Derryl DePriest asked me to join his “Hasbro Universe” of brands which included G.I. Joe (as well as ROM, Micronauts, Stretch Armstrong, M.A.S.K. and Visionaries). The opportunity to work on G.I. Joe and for Derryl was exciting, and I jumped at the opportunity. I’d always wanted to work on G.I. Joe, and it had a lot of momentum with a new movie coming soon (or so we thought).

You took the reins of G.I. Joe during a difficult time for the brand. G.I. Joe: Retaliation had already come and gone from theaters, and there was no sign of new media on the horizon. What was your initial goal after taking over the Brand Manager role?

We were expecting a new feature film to arrive in a few years, and I was excited to build a credible movie lineup and I personally hoped to preserve some of the shelf space post-movie and launch an ongoing line with supporting entertainment.

The 50th Anniversary line obviously had cost constraints given the number of re-released characters and parts. However, you were able to put out army builder packs — the Zombie Vipers and Iron Grenadiers/Viper 2-packs. Were those influenced by fan requests?

One of the big things I was able to change was a real thorn in the side of collectors. It made no sense to me to have 2-packs that featured a troop builder figure paired with an individual character. Everyone liked the H.E.A.T. Viper, but what do you do with nine Blowtorch figures? You could say that fan requests had something to do with it, but really as a longtime collector myself this was a pet peeve and something I could quickly correct that I knew would boost sales as well.

50th Blowtorch & H.E.A.T. Viper

Not fun to army build!

Speaking of fans, they love to cry out which former figures are selling for a small bounty’s worth on the secondary market. Did you ever look at eBay or other outlets to get ideas for which figures might be worth revisiting based on secondary market demand?

I absolutely looked into the “going rate” for completed auctions on eBay when trying to build upcoming 50th Anniversary lineups.

As Derryl explained to the JoeCon crowd in 2015, when we’re building a lineup we were given exactly how many new slots we had to work with. Remember that any deco of physical alteration to a figure would classify it as new. The only way to stretch a lineup to include more figures was to have items that were classified as “carry-forward” which meant no changes to the figure, its deco or accessories. Only the packaging could be altered.

To keep the lineups as interesting as possible, I tried to find carry-forward figures that would still resonate with collectors – either popular troop builders (Rock Viper, Cobra Shock Trooper, Zombie Viper, Iron Grenadiers) or solo figures that were either tremendously popular (Snake Eyes v54) or not built deeply enough to satisfy customer demand (Alpine, Renegades Storm Shadow, “Green” Blowtorch, “Red” Croc-Master). Lifeline, Ripcord and Airtight were some others that were considered but didn’t quite make the final cut.

The 50th line was memorable for both classic characters and some all-new ones. The most controversial was Tombstone, a wholly new character from scratch with no prior media tie-in. How did you weigh the risk for releasing a figure like that?

Not having a media tie-in certainly didn’t help, but I always wanted to introduce new characters to both G.I. Joe and Transformers when I worked on those brands. One of the most exciting times for me as a young G.I. Joe fan was finding the first figure of a new year’s lineup on the pegs at a store, then turning the card over to see what great NEW characters were going to be available that year.

I think the real risk is NOT making new characters. Tombstone is kinda love-hate with me, because I love that we made him but he didn’t turn out how I envisioned him. I pitched him as Duke’s opposite number – a charismatic and fearless field leader for Cobra, but also a touch vain. I always described him as “the kind of guy who would blow up the Hoover Dam and wait a few minutes to make sure CNN got a good picture of him before he left.” He was supposed to be Killmonger years before the Black Panther film. I was disappointed that he ended up as yet another scar-faced villain.

Tombstone 50th

Tombstone didn’t hit the mark

A couple years before you took over the G.I. Joe brand, a mock-up of a new U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier based on designs from G.I. Joe: Resolute was shown to fans. I’m personally glad this was never made as it skewed too far from a classic carrier design. Purely hypothetical: IF a new U.S.S. Flagg were ever released, say via HasLab, would you want to adhere more toward the traditional design or try something new?

I think you could stick closer to the original design – it doesn’t seem to me that aircraft carriers have changed their look tremendously in the last 30 years. The dirty little secret that owners of the original U.S.S. Flagg won’t tell you is – it’s a bit of a rough toy. There’s very little substance to the superstructure beneath the very heavy decks. Mine at least, hasn’t aged very well so any new take of the U.S.S. Flagg would have to re-examine the actual structure of the toy. (Editor’s note: I couldn’t agree more. The U.S.S. Flagg underbelly has tremendous potential for usable space, much like the Sail Barge interior.)

HasLab presents an interesting new direction for Hasbro where they can market directly to adult collectors. Thus far we’ve only seen one project: the Sail Barge, and that was a resounding success after the Yak-Face figure sweetened the pot. Do you feel like there’s opportunity with HasLab to cater to adult G.I. Joe collectors where traditional retail would otherwise prove too risky?

I think it’s certainly possible, although the newly-tooled beloved vehicles (the Skystriker and Tomahawk) didn’t set the world on fire at standard retail. Because HasLab is funded like Kickstarter there’s less risk than trying something ambitious at retail, but I think it’s best served making something that hasn’t existed before: the Cobra troop transport copter or maybe the giant Cobra C-130 from the animated movie intro.

You already engaged fans directly with a Fan’s Choice that resulted in Stiletto joining the 50th Anniversary line. Is there merit to the idea of Fan’s Choice and HasLab coming together to help fund more obscure ideas?

Sure. I don’t think there’s any one way to run HasLab. What if they made a true 25th Anniversary scale HISS tank? It wouldn’t bring in the same individual purchase price as Jabba’s Sail Barge, but I’d certainly buy a couple. Wouldn’t you? (Editor’s note: If it looked like the image that just popped in my head then I’d buy more than two!)

I’m personally not a fan of 6″ action figures but would be remiss to not ask for your opinion about them and their place in the market.

The 6” scale figure has become such a norm for the collecting community that any collector-themed brand should have an offering in that scale. I think Joe fans would welcome a 6-inch scale as long as it comes simultaneously with the traditional 3.75”-4” scale offerings.

The Star Wars “Vintage Collection” is back, but came back with a whimper thanks in full part to an initial case assortment full of repacks. How important do you feel case assortment is to retail success?

Case assortment can absolutely sink a strong lineup or maximize the value of a lineup with tooling or item count restrictions. We balanced the casepacks for the 2016 G.I. Joe lineups – our five two-packs were even-packed two to a case. To do this takes planning and foresight though – the re-releases have to be strong enough to sell evenly with the new items. We had great confidence in the Zombie Viper and Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow 2-packs to sell equivalently (or even better) than the new 2-packs.

One of the big draws for the Star Wars Vintage Collection, apart from classic card backs and new characters, is the numbering system. Do you feel that’s something that could translate to G.I. Joe should classic card art one day make a comeback?

I’m not positive a numbering system is necessary or even wanted by Joe collectors, but if you are re-launching the line at some point you’ve got to win over kids and turn them into collectors. A numbering system costs nothing and can’t hurt, so I don’t see any downside.

Nowadays when you walk down the toy aisle you see many properties based on digital media or with tie-ins. Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite figures come to mind – the latter being an homage to 3-3/4″ G.I. Joe designs. Would you agree that this is a good sign for the future potential of G.I. Joe at retail, with proper digital tie-ins working in synergy with toys?

I think absolutely. Toys today must have some sort of tie to a digital property and hopefully active entertainment as well. I think the sales success of Fortnite figures especially harkens well for the future of G.I. Joe.

And since we’re edging close to those waters anyway – why not a first-person shooter game for G.I. Joe? Now don’t get me wrong here – I am NOT talking about Call of Duty: G.I. Joe. Think about the training sequence with Ripcord from Rise of Cobra. Just think of him assessing targets and using his weapon to score points in realistic battle field conditions. You’re never gonna get bullet holes and blood from a G.I. Joe game, but if you are tactically building a team to rescue a hostage and the enemies blink out or de-rez when defeated what’s the difference? If I have kids arguing whether Scarlett’s infiltration skills and silent weapon are more valuable to fill out a squad than Alpine’s ability to rappel from a helicopter or the sheer firepower of Roadblock’s “Ma Deuce” aren’t I accomplishing what I want as a Brand Manager? (Editor’s note: Absolutely. Character individuality is a big part of G.I. Joe and would translate wonderfully to gaming).

Now a topic near and dear to my heart: G.I. Joe Renegades. You were the guy behind the Renegades Roadblock figure appearing in the 2017 SDCC IDW Revolutions Crossover box set. There has to be a great story behind how this figure came to be. Of all the G.I. Joe characters to choose from, why him? Was he originally designed back in 2011/2012? How much more work was necessary on Roadblock to get him into the box set? Do tell!

When setting a year’s lineup the first thing I always did was consult with Hasbro’s Legal Department to see what trademarks were up for renewal that year. If it was a valuable or key character that needed a new retail release to re-up his/her name trademark then they made it into the line.

Roadblock was coming due soon and with very little Joe product scheduled for 2017 he was an easy choice to put into the SDCC Revolutions set. Even SDCC sets have a tooling budget and that set used a lot in several little places – Rom, new heads for Action Man & the Dire Wraith, all he little Micronauts figures, Leoric’s head and chest.

SDCC 2017 IDW Revolution

SDCC 2017 IDW Revolution Box Set

Renegades Roadblock made sense because he was already tooled, had collector value as the unreleased “holy grail” of the Renegades crew, and had name value to add to the set. One of my biggest pet peeves as a collector is hen a company starts a crew or a subset and doesn’t let collectors complete it. When I was on Transformers, if I gave you a new Starscream you can bet Skywarp and Thundercracker weren’t far behind. When an Insecticon appeared in the Legends line, it was only because I’d already mapped out plans for you to get the other two in subsequent series.

Were there any other Renegades figures on the drawing board you were looking at along with Roadblock? Others that perhaps were never shown in public before?

I only targeted the Renegades Roadblock figure for release because he was already tooled, known of and desired by the collecting community, and had the name value to boost the SDCC set.

Do you think Renegades was a TV series ahead of its time and may have fared better today on Netflix with a much wider audience? In my opinion, it holds up remarkably well with serial storytelling akin to what Dreamworks Animation Television is outputting these days with Trollhunters/Tales of Arcadia and How to Train Your Dragon. There’s a lot more story left to tell following the Season 1 finale…

I liked the Renegades series a lot, and I think it showcased exactly what a modern COBRA organization would look like. I’m sorry for the purists, but COBRA cannot be a “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world” any longer. I think a modern COBRA would have a completely visible Commander – the kind of guy who would wrap up a TED Talk to thunderous applause, then step backstage, don his mask and ask for a sitrep on their actual activities.

I think Renegades was saddled with minimal viewership because The Hub network had such limited household penetration. Couple that with the yearlong delay of G.I. Joe Retaliation when product was already in the retail distribution center and that was a brutal one-two punch that crippled the brand.

Adam DeCobray

From TED Talk to Sitrep – Adam DeCobray

To wrap this up with a fun question, what’s the first vintage G.I. Joe action figure that immediately pops into your mind, and why.

I had lots of favorites as a kid, but I always gravitated toward the figures that only came with vehicles. Some of my favorites included Steeler, Thunder, AVAC, Ace, Wild Weasel and Strato-Viper. I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for the last version of Night Fox, since the copywriter made him from my hometown of Bend, Oregon as a wink. Brian Savage at the G.I. Joe Collectors’ Club let me write the filecards for the modern versions of Interrogator (my all-time favorite Cobra) and Ghostrider so they’ll always have a special spot in my collection.

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